Surrealism Photography: What to Know and How to Nail It
Surrealism photography. When the whole point of it is meant to question all that we consider rational, logical, and real, how can we possibly develop specific steps to nail it? Well, we’re going to give it a whirl. But considering that the topic of surrealism itself deals with absurdities, let us humor ourselves with a glimpse into surrealism photography and how we can explore it and nail it.
Surrealism is regularly described as an avant-garde movement that came about around the end of World War 1, following the advent of Dadaism. From the idea of “anti-art” to the idea that things are not what they seem, to things that can be more than what they seem, came about the idea of surrealism.
The development of psychology and symbolism in its various branches fed into it—along with developments in image-making—from painting to photographic manipulation.
What are you trying to (not) say?
Say goodbye to Captain Obvious. Begin by asking—so what are you trying to say with your image? Or rather, what are you trying not to convey? Surrealism feeds off many emotions and feelings, twisting logic, raising questions, and prompting viewers to look and think twice.
Whatever non-message you have in mind, symbolism and juxtaposition are your friends. So your image-making begins in thought and on paper. Draw your inspiration from the world around you, or literature, popular culture, so on and so forth.
Think of what combination of elements (objects, people, landscapes, and so on) can convey what you have in mind. Bear in mind that every element is a communicative symbol—in a surreal image, they don’t just present themselves. They represent something more.
You can choose to make your meaning obvious with a typically expected combination of objects or introduce a surprise element into it. Again, surprise, shock, delight, and humor are your friends here. What insane thing can you do with your set of elements? Surrealism photography begins here.
What if there was an octopus on your office desk? An airplane for your dinner? A hamster doing HR appraisals in Heaven? An inverted skyscraper underwater? Hyperbole, exaggeration, comedy, surprise, confusion, nonsense—there are many emotions and various devices you can evoke when you plan your imagery.
A wise comedian once said – the key to a good joke is to take something undeniable and every day – and introduce one stupid thing into it. So start by asking yourself—what stupid thing can I do with my imagery?
And if your viewers go, “What did I just see?!” you’ve succeeded.
Photographing surreal imagery from scratch
Surrealism pioneers like Dora Maar or Man Ray began by using good ol’ photography, and playing around with their subjects and objects, which took on a greater meaning in each image.
You can try experimenting that way by setting up your own shoots. Again, once you conceptualize your image on paper, gather the objects you need for a shoot. If you need a model, bring them in. Surrealism photography funnily enough is best shot in controlled environments like a studio, so do yourself a favor by booking one, and invest in good lighting, tripods, a green screen and prop options.
Set up your objects in the manner you wish to convey your message(or not), with careful attention to the absurd in your composition. It need not be just one thing—your image can unpack several surprises. Play with orientation, perspective, color, scale or create visual effects to mess with your viewers’ heads. You could create a double entendre—multiple interpretations in one image.
Once you have your shots, erase the green screen to change the backdrop, or edit out the props that hold/suspend your surreal elements together. Many photographers take the opportunity to edit images into a fantasy-style which is helpful, since it’s a great way to cover up discrepancies between juxtaposed layers.
Surreal Photography works best from the eyes of the viewers, so allow for numerous interpretations. Don’t be obvious.
If you’re confident and so inclined, you can do your surrealist shoots on location. Set up your shoots and take the necessary legal permissions for such shoots. Once you assemble everything, click at the opportune moment. We suggest getting to this stage only once you’re experienced in other safer forms of surrealism photography. Hospitals and courtrooms are very real and not fun.
Experiment with media and tools
Some photographers have been known to use X-rays as part of their photographic technique. Others have taken films and juxtaposed and developed the negatives with a different set of chemicals. There have been those who have used pinhole cameras as well. The possibilities are endless when you shop around and think beyond traditional photography tools.
So here’s the next surreal point in Surrealism Photography—you don’t always need a camera to achieve it.
Get down to image making
You can be a true blue surrealist photographer and create your photograph by never picking up your camera. Instead, you can play off others’ stock photographs and edit your absurd, surreal thing into it. Stay safe and stay legal when this is your goal, kids. Buy the images you need.
Here, good editing software is your friend. Once you have your selected elements together, place them in an environment they don’t belong in, or juxtapose them with something that creates a completely different meaning.
Here, the wow/shock factor rests on your editing skills in which you adjust the coloring, clarity and composition of the imagery to make it as believable as possible. If your viewers can find defects and detect the edit, its surreal quality is lost. Your best bet is to ensure your source images are of close enough quality in resolution and coloring to begin mixing and manipulating them.
Think beyond reason
Done well, surrealism photography can be fine art photography at its finest. It has the ability to make people see the absurd, convey messages, or even question logic. Something that is great news for the playful mind. The best part is there are no masters, no rules, and no benchmarks. Take this chance to move beyond the normal, and play with every viewer’s perception, because in the surreal world, limits do not exist.