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surrealism & photography « Previous | |Next »
February 07, 2004

Photography is rarely mentioned in the art history books on surrealism. These have focused primarily on painting and drawing. Few question this interpretation as surrealism and photography do seem to be incompatible.

Surrealism and photography do seem to make strange bedfellows. The former, springing from Dada and Freud's descriptions of the subconscious mind and inner, subjective life, is otherwise to a photography rooted in the visible, material world. And surrealism was also deeply critical of the camera as a mirror of the world that records a moment of reality as it appeared.

This view was challenged by the major exhibition L'Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism (Abbeville Press, 1985, curated with catalogues she curated and produced catalogues by Jane Livingston and Rosalind Krauss. This text concentrated on the constructed nature of surrealist photography----ie., those made by surrealist artists such as Man Ray.

Photography could be used to express the unconscious, intoxications/hallucinations and the dreams of the city of interwar Paris. A classic example is Atget's photos of the streets of Paris.

This image of corsets in shop window can be given a surreal interpretation.

This interpretation would focus on the bizarre or the strangeness of the image.

It is in the strangeness of the subject matter----the corsets---- as obects of repressed desire that the moment of ‘surreality’ lies.

It is not necessarily in the effect of the constructed photo of the visual artist.

That strangeness of subject matter can also be highlighted by situating Atget's photographs in surrealist texts; or through a surrealist editing process which juxtaposes his images in a meaningful way.

There was a wide range of photographic material in surrealist journals beyond the standard appropriation of the work of Atget, eg:
Jacques Andre Boiffard, Untitled, Big Toe series, for Documents, 1929

So surrealism in photography exists. You could make an argument to wrest attention away from painting (and Breton) and towards photography (and Bataille.

Two more examples from the constructed strand of surrealist photography:
Andre Kertesz, Distortion #88, 1933

The distorting perspective challenges the dominant understanding of straight photography as a window on the world.

And then this:
Dora Maar, Portrait of Pere Ubu, 1936

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 09:15 PM | | Comments (3) | TrackBacks (1)

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» Surrealism as a way of knowing from philosophical conversations
I came across this passage on surrealism over at the wonderful Artrift site. It's a quote from Wallace Fowlie, Age [Read More]



Surely the fact that people misconceive photography as reality makes all photography surreal in a way?!?

Well, an interesting understanding of photography was put forward by Roland Barthes in "Camera Lucida". He thinks the photograph and the real are the same thing, and not separated as in the painting process where the real has to go through the painter 's mind and hand to appear on the canvas.
Barthes was thinking primarily about traditional, family-album-style photos. He was interested in that they resist the sign-representation approach to production of cultural meaning.
In these photos here though - Distortion #88 for instance - it is obvious that the photographer has at his disposal tool to play with the real. How was that image produced? Probably with a bent mirror..

An article about Walter Benjamin on Surrealism and Photography can be found here.

The relationship between Surrealism and
photography has been dominated by Rosalind Krauss's essays in L'Amour fou(1985). Tis time for a rethink.

The work of Lee Miller is a further example of surrealism in photography which showed the world anew and strange.