Research point:B&W and surrealism

Read the article ‘Cannon Fodder:Authoring Eugene Atget’ by Abigail Solomon -Godeau ( in Photography at the Dock , 2009 ,pp.28-51). Research the work of the surrealist photographers.

The very fact that photography adheres slavishly to reality is in fact a guarantee of its independence and its strangeness , and the mechanical manner in which it operates makes it an ideal Surrealist tool ” ( Bouqueret , intro p.g 2)

Eugene Atget , 1857-1927 , France

Atget’s work was inspirational and influential , a pioneer of what has evolved to become street photography. His visual exploration of the city of Paris during the 1890’s until the onset of World War 1 gained him the admiration of surrealist artists who found his work haunting and atmospheric . Although “intended for museums and libraries and as nothing more than records , Atget’s pictures began to catch the eye of artists in the 1920’s and in particular of Man Ray and Berenice Abbott” ( Jeffrey, 1997) . Interestingly Walker Evans “unlike the Surrealist photographers , who found Atget’s work full of mystery and and the uncanny” (Warner Marien, pg. 281) admired “the reserved and courtly melancholy about the transitions of modern life”  (Warner Marien, pg. 281). Similarly Berenice Abbott appreciated Atget’s structured working method,  emulating his approach in her own exploration of New York’s transformation , started in the late 1920’s. Atget wanted to record a rapidly vanishing world and did so using a large format view camera with bellows and glass plate on a tripod . The long exposures give the street scenes a dreamy atmospheric quality, the shop windows and mannequins have surreal characteristics. Atget developed and printed his own work but never enlarged them. The prints with their various sepia tones are evocative reminders of a time long past. After his death Berenice Abbott became an advocate for his work , and continued to be so during her lifetime.

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Eugene Atget

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Eugene Atget

Man Ray , 1890-1976, Philadelphia US.

Of course , there will always be those who look only at technique , who ask ‘how’ , while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’ Personally I have always preferrer inspiration to information” —Man Ray

Initially a painter Ray migrated to Paris in 1921 becoming a Vogue fashion photographer . Using techniques such as  photograms (or rayograms as he renamed them ) and solarization that reversed tonal values (with highly unpredictable results) he created images that made “ visible the invisible” (Badger p.g 65). Ray’s female acquaintances were frequently the subject of his often erotic and surreal portraiture . A cropped photograph of Lee Miller’s body combined with “lines of light playing across the naked torso” ( Badger p.g 65) was used to promote the triumph of electricity by a Paris based company , the image communicates the unseen. The severely cropped image of a young model’s face shows “an apparently grief stricken” (Sobieszek , p.g 210) woman who cries not real but glass beaded tears. A double exposed image of the Marquise Cassati “is one of the greatest Surrealist portraits” (Sobieszek , p.g 214) , Ray’s “technical manipulation” (Sobieszek , p.g 214) has  transformed her into a strange four eyed female enigma. 

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Man Ray– Tears

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Man Ray

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Man Ray

Berenice Abbott , 1898-1979 , Ohio US.

Abbott assisted Man Ray during the 1920’s in Paris “during which time she also co-invented the expressive use of solarization in photography” (Warner Marien, pg. 290) .  On her return to New York in 1929 , and influenced by Atget , she began to photograph the rapidly changing city. With their curved lines and straight lines , unusual viewpoints , clever use of light and shadow the influence of surrealism can be seen in many of Abbott’s images of the newly emerging metropolis.    

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Berenice Abbott

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Berenice Abbott

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Berenice Abbott

Henri Cartier-Bresson , 1908-2004 , France

Cartier-Bresson has said that Surrealism was a formative influence on him. The Surrealists understood and went to great lengths to convince others of the density and magic of everyday life: in this sense , his debt to them is clear. They showed us that nothing , absolutely nothing in our lives is perceived with neutrality.” (Brenson , intro p.g 4)  

Cartier-Bresson , like Man Ray, studied painting and coined the phrase the decisive moment. Demonstrating his astute observational skills “his work reveals the inner truth of human existence” (Dickie, p.g 44) . His images frequently demonstrate Cartier-Bressons’s unique talent for visualising then capturing a split second of absurdity.

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Graciela Iturbide , b1942 , Mexico

Beautiful , intriguing , and sometimes mystical probably best sums up the images of Iturbide’s nine year documentary study of Zapotec culture in the Juchitan community, Oaxaca, Mexico. Iturbide’s frequently surreal photographs capture the women’s economic freedom and sexuality which , despite age , is celebrated in their matriarchal society. Our Lady of the Iguanas is a bizarre iconic celebration of feminine power.

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Bullet point list of key visual & conceptional characteristics of surrealism in photography.
Visual qualities
  • Dreamlike
  • Mystical
  • Depict the unseen
  • Alternative versions of the everyday
  • Reality transformed to fantasy
  • Intangible
  • Erotic
  • Strange /bizarre /unsettling
  • Juxtaposition of unrelated objects
  • Everyday objects , people, and places shot in an unusual way
  • Use of lines /curves /shadow/light
Conceptional choices
  •  Choice of camera angle /lens/  light / framing etc to distort and alter perspective
  •  Post shoot darkroom techniques / digital manipulation  / cropping / etc
  • Double exposure / collage /photomontage/ etc
  • Use of juxtaposition
  • Subject matter

I found the article difficult to read and understand . However looking at fellow students comments on their blogs about the article I am rather relieved to see they had as much difficulty as me–I am not quite as stupid as I was beginning to believe !

References / Bibliography
Badger , Gerry , ( 2007) . The Genius of Photography  How photography has changed our lives , London , UK :Quadrille Publishing
Delpire ,R (ed) . Bouqueret ,C (introduction) , ( 2008 ) . Surrealist Photography , London , UK : Thames and Hudson Photofile
Delpire ,R (ed) . Brenson , M (introduction) , (1989) . Henri Cartier-Bresson , London , UK : Thames and Hudson Photofile
Dickie Chris , (2009) . Photography The 50 most influential photographers in the world,  London , UK:A & C Black
Jeffrey Ian , (1997 ) .The Photo Book , London , UK : Phaidon Press ,
Sobieszek , R, ( 1999) . Ghost in the shell Photography and the Human Soul 1850-2000,  California , USA :Los Angeles County Museum of Art & MIT Press
Warner Marien Mary . (2010 ) Photography:A Cultual History Third edition, London UK :Laurence King
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2 thoughts on “Research point:B&W and surrealism

  1. Judy Bach Post author

    Hi Catherine , thanks, my eyes were glazing over when I was reading the article but I really enjoyed doing the research. I have been busy the past couple of days taking pictures, I seem to hardly have time with the coursework to actually do any photography but I have had a few ideas I wanted to try out . I now need to process them and think about how I will then present them . Hope all is going well for you . Best wishes Judy



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