Category Archives: Project 4 : Psychogeographies

Research point : Vivian Maier

Explore the Vivian Maier website and identify five street photographs that show clear surrealist elements.

Vivian Maier , 1926-2009 , New York

American born Maier spent her early years in France before returning to the States . Employed as a nanny in New York 1951 her photography was a private endeavour undertaken simply for herself . She additionally made amateur  audio and Super 8 movie documentary recordings. Initially using a Kodak Brownie she graduated to a square format Rolleiflex , eventually moving to colour film and 35mm SLR’s.

Moving to Chicago in 1956 she had her own darkroom within the family home , where she worked and lived , and was therefore able to process her own B&W contact sheets . Whilst being aware that she was a keen photographer the children she looked after , and frequently photographed , and their parents were never shown her work so had no knowledge of her remarkable talent. Inevitably the children she cared for grew up , her occupation meant she moved around hence she had no real permanent base and needed somewhere to store her rapidly growing collection .

Maier used a rented storage locker to store her photography work along with clippings , books, and other bits and pieces she collected and kept. The collection included around 100, 000 negatives , 700 rolls of undeveloped film , audio and home movie recordings. Unable to keep up the rental due to financial difficulties the contents of her locker were sold at auction in 2007 . John Maloof , an estate agent , was one of the buyers who , enthralled by what he discovered , started to print some of her B&W images and began his quest to get Vivian Maier the recognition he rightly felt her work deserved.

She was an intensely private and eccentric person and I find it intiguing to consider what drove her to keep taking photographs whilst not wanting , or believing , they would ever be publicly shared . The collection is fascinating and eclectic , Chicago and New York’s streets and their inhabitants , frequently the marginalised , were captured at close range by this remarkable and enigmatic woman.

An interesting article was published in the Guardian earlier this year. Sixty-six year old Robert Glaser , interviewed by Erica Buist , discusses his reaction on discovering a photograph of his eight year old self taken by Vivian Maier whilst looking through an on-line gallery.
Article below.

Amongst the vast collection of images on the website of street life , children , and self-portraits there are many that show surrealist elements.

1. Her self-portraits are fascinating and there were many that I consider to have a surreal quality. The reclusive photographer turns the camera on herself but still retains her mystery.

Vivian Maier .


2. Nude mannequins and reflections are favoured surrealist subjects.

3. Bizarre and intriguing, an upside-down man , a child with one shoe and a ‘glamour’ girl all in the same frame.

4. Lines , shadows and light , an everyday scene transformed into something intangible.

5. The body-less feet and small doll in the top right hand corner of the shop window make this a rather strange image.

References / Bibliography

Buist, E. (2015) That’s me in the picture . The Guardian Weekend
Accessed 8/4/2015
Accessed 25/4/2015



Choose one of the weekly instructions given to contributors to the Street Photography Now Project in 2011 and build a small portfolio of B&W images on your chosen brief.

Publish a selection of five images from your portfolio on your blog.

Instruction # 39 “Don’t ask. Shoot fast”—Gus Powell

My selection were taken in New York. I must admit I am not a keen street photographer any more but I felt more comfortable shooting in New York than I do locally. I used a compact camera rather than my DSLR. IMG_0311 IMG_0737 IMG_0492 Central Park IMG_0919

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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 21.49.02

Eugene Atget

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 13.08.55

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. 

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 09.21.46

Man Ray– Tears

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 09.24.29

Man Ray

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 13.48.01

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.    

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 21.41.19

Berenice Abbott

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 22.20.04

Berenice Abbott

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 22.09.36

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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 20.09.56

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 15.21.51

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 15.20.46

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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 11.17.49

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
Accessed 9/4/2015
Accessed 9/4/2015
Accessed 9/4/2015
Accessed 9/4/2015
Accessed 9/4/2015
Accessed 9/4/2015
Accessed 9/4/2015
Accessed 10/4/2015
Accessed 10/4/2015
Accessed 11/4/2015
Accessed 11/4/2015
Accessed 11/4/2015