Dada and Surrealist Photography - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Dada and Surrealist Photography
Dada and Photography in Germany
The Dada movement was established in Germany after World War I. It attempted to create a new kind of art that was valued primarily for its conceptual properties rather than focusing on aesthetics or literal documentation. Dada quickly spread to France and the US (to Paris and New York in particular), but many of its proponents who worked with photography remained in Germany. One of the key ways in which the Dadaists attacked traditional art was through photomontage. Artists such as Max Ernst and Hannah Höch used scissors and glue to cut up found (and occasionally original) photographs from a number of sources and reassemble them, using contrast and juxtaposition to emphasize their message. The use of photomontage as an art form was one of the most important ways in which the Dadaists shook up the traditional aesthetic order of the art world.
Photographic Beginnings in Paris: Eugène Atget
Meanwhile, in Paris, photographer Eugène Atget was using an old-fashioned camera to experiment with photography as an art form. Atget took photographs of Parisian streets, exploring how the camera both accurately captured the locus of everyday life, and also allowing him manipulate the same image so that it lost its grounding in reality.
Even though Atget had been experimenting with photos of shop windows for a decade, his work would come to prominence in the 1920s. His ethereal pictures became dual portraits, showcasing both the unsettling presence of mannequins framed within glass, as well as the reflections in the windows produced by activities taking place in the world outside. These interior/exterior melds created a distinctively surreal vibe, a dreamy form of unreality. These (among other images) were hailed by artists such as Man Ray and Berenice Abbott, and can be seen as some of the earliest touchstones for Surrealist photography. Art historian Ian Walker argues that Atget's work "seems to form a bridge between 19th-century topographical photography and 20th-century modernism" and, in particular, Surrealism.
Man Ray's Photograms: From Dada to Surrealism
Man Ray, who was already an established member of the Dada movement, arrived in Paris in 1921, where he soon began to collaborate with artists, including Marcel Duchamp, and to experiment with photography. He began to explore the potential in many photographic techniques, including the photogram - an image produced without a camera. For example, a photogram might be made by placing objects onto photosensitive paper before exposing the composition to the light, resulting in a negative image of the objects. Man Ray called these images "Rayographs," claiming their signature for himself. In 1922, he published a work called Champs Delicieux, where a text by the dada poet Tristan Tzara was accompanied by a series of his "Rayographs." Tzara described these early photographs in a way that emphasizes their instability and uncertainty: "Is it a spiral of water in the tragic gleam of a revolver, an egg, a glistening arc or the floodgate of reason, a keen ear attuned to a mineral hiss, or a turbine of algebraic formulas?" The publication was one of the early works to connect photography with the emerging Surrealist movement in early 1920s Paris.
The Surrealist Manifesto
While Man Ray was experimenting with photography, Andre Breton was forging ahead with the establishment of a new avant-garde movement. Surrealism was officially launched with the Manifesto of Surrealism, authored by Breton in 1924. The main premise behind the movement was a rejection of reason and logic in exchange for an emphasis on free imagination and creativity, achieved through accessing or unblocking the unconscious. The movement caught on in both literary and artistic circles, with many practitioners working with both words and images to explore dreams, chance, or psychic automation, in an attempt to capture what Breton termed "convulsive beauty."
Many of these artistic reactions were a response to the horrors unleashed by the First World War and the breakdown in rational order and psychic wholeness that many people experienced as a result of it. The Surrealists discovered that normality was not necessarily a fixed concept, and that reality was entirely determined by perception. Psychological trauma, such as that experienced by many soldiers, could open new vistas of "reality" based on a mentally disturbed state. By processing these states through an art of the subconscious, the Surrealists were forerunners to the psychological concepts of mining the interior world.
Separating Photography from Surrealism
Although some key members of the Surrealist movement dabbled in photography, it was generally the fringe artists of the movement who enthusiastically embraced it as a sub-genre. As Christian Bouqueret argues in his monograph on Surrealist Photography, "with the exception of Jacques-Andre Boiffard [...] no photographers were directly involved. There were, of course, some who trod a long and parallel path, such as Man Ray [...] and others who joined the movement for a time, while maintaining a degree of detachment: Brassai, Dora Maar, Raoul Ubac, Claude Cahun, etc."
In some ways this is surprising, but it is also easy to see why photography was not an immediately obvious choice for many Surrealists. Before the 1920s, photography was primarily known as a scientific tool for capturing accurate images of the world, of documenting life, which suggested a conceptual opposition to the Surrealists' aim of capturing the imaginary, the fantastical, and the psychological. However, for a handful of progressive practitioners, photography was recognized as a tool that could be effectively subverted in the name of Surrealism in order to capture different kinds of reality. They did this through collage and juxtaposition, or through manipulating a familiar object in order to make it appear unknown, which invoked the idea of the uncanny, a key principle of Surrealist inquiry.
One of the most important ways in which photography became more closely associated with Surrealism was through the publication of journals. Breton's publication of The Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 was accompanied by the launch of a new journal, La Revolution Surrealiste. As art historian David Bate points out in his book Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism and Social Dissent, it is only with the publication of this journal that photography began to play a bigger role in the movement and its dissemination: "The first issue of the journal La Revolution Surrealiste in December 1924 marked a shift, not only with the inclusion of 'revolution' in its title, but also its changed contents. It was also here in La Revolution Surrealiste that photography became a really significant means of representation in the Surrealist project." He points out that every subsequent issue of the journal had an increasing number of photographic images in it. This is partly because photographs could be reproduced easily and circulated through the means of journals such as this, allowing the visual aspect of the Surrealist movement to reach a much wider audience than would otherwise be possible. Due to this practical need for photography, there was also a growing response from artists both within and outside the movement to develop photography as a Surrealist art form.
Dada and Surrealist Photography: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Dada artists such as Max Ernst and Hannah Höch were principals in the evolution of photomontage. Such use of juxtapositions allowed Dada artists to eradicate the original meanings of the photographs and re-contextualize contemporary issues. The photomontage technique was also used by a number of Surrealist artists, including Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. For the Surrealists, the attraction of photomontage was principally that it could be used to make the familiar seem strange and echo the fragmentary nature of dreams.
A number of Surrealist artists used techniques of post-production to manipulate their photographs. This might involve adding a graphic detail to a print before re-photographing it, such as in Man Ray's famous work Le Violon d'Ingres (1924), where he doctored the image in order to distort our understanding of the picture plane and of the photographic process. Alternatively, this might involve staging a photograph and then retouching it as in Salvador Dalí's Dalí Atomicus (1948), where a cat, some water, and Dalí himself fly through the air alongside floating tables. The fishing wire used to suspend the furniture was removed in post-production to finalize the image.
A number of Surrealist photographs were taken of everyday places, people, and items, but were cropped or staged in such a way as to force the viewer to question their perception of reality. For example, Andre Kertesz photographed his Distortions series in a house of mirrors at a fun fair. The resulting images capture a moment of reality, but they appear to be grotesque and unreal. Similarly, Dora Maar photographed a number of ordinary items but cropped or presented them in an unexpected way. In her Father Ubu (1936), an armadillo fetus appears to be entirely alien.
Image and Text
There is a strong connection between Surrealist photography and language. Some works included text in the body of the piece, such as in René Magritte's Je ne vois pas la femme cachee dans la foret (1929). The meaning of some works became dependent on their title or caption. For example, Man Ray's Dust Breeding (1920) was a close-up image of dust collecting over the surface of Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923). The photograph was originally published with the caption "view from an aeroplane," pointing to the way in which our understanding of a photographic image is dependent on its linguistic context.
Later Developments - After Dada and Surrealist Photography
Although the Surrealist movement faded away by the mid-1930s, Surrealist photography has had a surprising longevity. Artists such as Claude Cahun continued to produce work in a similar, if not identical, vein well into the 1940s. Man Ray similarly continued to work in photography, often capturing significant members of the art world in unusual portraits. Some street scene photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helen Levitt would borrow Surrealist notions of discovering the uncanny in their everyday decisive moments. Surrealism can also be found in the early works of many of the mid-century's photography greats including Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Diane Arbus.
Many of these artists had a significant impact on later generations. The ability of the camera to both conceal and reveal, and to create a different kind of reality - first pushed to its limits by the Surrealist photographers - is something that continues to inspire artists today. In particular, artists who worked with issues of gender and sexuality continued to have an impact. Claude Cahun, for example, is cited as a key influence of a number of female artists working with photography, self-portraiture and disguise, such as Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing.
Furthermore, a number of contemporary artists cite the Surrealist photographers as an influence due to their interest in photographing things that are not as they first appear. For example, Man Ray and Duchamp's aforementioned Dust Breeding (1920) directly inspired Sophie Ristelhueber's À cause de l'élevage de poussière, her 1991 aerial photograph of the Kuwait desert just after the expulsion of Iraqi forces.