Surrealism began in France in the 1920s as an intellectual and artistic movement intent on liberating the passions and annihilating the boundaries between reality and dream. Many talented photographers, including Man Ray, Lee Miller and Raoul Ubac, were drawn in by surrealism's promise of total artistic freedom. Surrealist photography expanded the boundaries of what was possible with a camera.
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Surrealism sought things that polite society avoided and celebrated them. Violence, the uncanny, sexual perversion, industrial landscapes and inexplicable objects were all part of the surrealist pantheon. The basis of surrealist photography is the presence of subjects that don't fit comfortably into the viewer's preconceptions. This could be done either by finding disturbing subject matter or by photographing familiar subjects in a disturbing way designed to produce vertigo and disorientation. Surrealist photographers were drawn to images of physical deformity, acts of prostitution and the small, overlooked detritus of urban life, such as discarded tickets, graffiti and balls of dust.
Surrealist photography manipulates the viewer's conscious through unfamiliar techniques as well as disturbing subject matter. Blurred photographs, double exposures, unusual cropping and extreme close-ups were all used. More arcane techniques that manipulated the film itself were also used. Man Ray created a technique he called "solarization." Using this technique, he created profiles by setting objects directly onto the film in the darkroom and exposing it. Surrealist-influenced photographers such as Lucas Samaras have continued this kind of experimentation. Samaras made altered self-portraits by using a Polaroid camera and distorting the image as the film developed in front of him.
One of the premises of surrealism is the expansion of mental barriers through the juxtaposition of incompatible objects. This technique is used in surrealist writing, painting, sculpture and photography. A surrealist photographer may make a formal portrait of a refined woman with a dead fish in her lap, a scene of a child in a clean white dress in the middle of a battlefield or an image of nude people at a cocktail party. Juxtaposition can also be created using the collage technique, in which different photographs are cut up and reassembled together in creative ways.
The common theme of most surrealist photography is desire. This may be expressed as lust and sexual desire or as the longing for a world that doesn't exist. Surrealists were quick to realise that the camera could capture instantaneous moments of desire and emotion that would escape a painter or writer. They used photographic technology to trap and preserve human dissatisfaction with the mundane nature of modern life and the desire that lay just beneath a veneer of civilisation.
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