What is Surrealism?
There are a multitude of definitions of Surrealism but they generally net down to using imagery from the subconscious mind and dreamscape to express an authentic self and thereby visualise a truer reality, the Surreal. This expression of the dreamworld with its fusion of fantasy and reality opens the door to the artist’s subconscious often including overt sexuality, fetichism, death, obsession, records an image as it occurs to the imagination.
In my late teens I was intrigued with Salvador Dali who epitomised the surviving artists of the pre-war Surrealistic movement with his unfettered, highly technical paintings expressing his most basic hungers and ideas. In 1977, whilst he was still alive, we visited his museum in Figueres and his house in Portlligat which exemplify the transformation of reality into something strange but familiar. Everything about Dali was larger than life, experimental, challenging and confrontational. You could love his work or hate it but you couldn’t ignore it.
The Surrealist Movement in Paris
So why mention Dali at all in the context of photography?
The Paris Surrealist movement which Dali broke into in 1929 was an elitist, small club, there is a photograph of Dali in 1930 with eight other “members” (9); to be a Surrealist at this time meant being accepted into this circle. Whilst Dali was primarily a painter he announced himself this to group as a filmmaker, another leading Surrealist, Man Ray, is probably remembered primarily as a photographer but was also a sculptor and painter. Their exploration of Surrealism included, possibly required, breaking down the fences between artistic disciplines. Bill Brandt, who will quickly become the focus of this essay, worked for Man Ray from 1930 until 1934 ( i ) and was a fringe member of this group, after WWII he photographed many of its original members including Dali so it is likely that he knew them in the early thirties.
Dali who believed that “Photography sets imagination free” was himself a highly photographed man but, many of the photographs in which he appears are so much an extension of his own art that it is often unclear how much of the creative energy is being generated by the photographer and how much by the subject and this type of collaboration is typical not just of Dali but of the Surrealist movement in general.
Gerry Badger describes the rise of surrealism’s relationship with photography in The Genius of Photography (1) and highlights that the movement became intrigued with photography because of its innate ability to slip between reality and unreality which was particularly attractive to an art form that centred on the power of dreams and spontaneous happenstance.
Surrealism and Photography
Surrealism inspired photographers in a variety ways so there is a stark contrast between the semi or completely manipulated work of Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy and the street photography of Bill Brandt or the documentary photography of Eugene Atget.
In Electricite 1931 Man Ray uses manipulated images combining actual objects, including the female form, solarization, a process that records images in reverse so light is dark and visa versa, and photogram, which uses light sensitive paper to record images without a camera. (2) Man Ray, who one suspects was not a shy or retiring man, declared the he had invented the Rayogram when he started to use the latter technique in his work.His photograph of Lee Miller ( ii ) shown in fig. 02 (3) was part of the Electricité portfolio of ten images. Miller was his assistant and his lover and features in many of his photographs. Man Ray cropped the foreground picture of Miller to resemble the Venus de Milo thus reducing her to an object that represents the eternal women but then adds a second picture of her in background that appears more human, more sensual in form, before applying the ribbons of light, via Rayogram, to represent electricity. This image encompasses a number of surreal elements including fantasised sexuality and the juxtaposition of the classical torso with the modernity of electrical power.
In Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy it is easy to see Surreal properties but when we start to consider how this art movement influenced street photography the trail is a little harder to follow. There are a number of choices including Lee Miller herself and Henri Cartier Bresson but I want to focus on a British ( iii ) photographer who has been a major influence on more than one generation of artists. ( iv )
In his introduction to Bill Brandt Photographs 1928 – 1983 (5) Ian Jeffrey says that “Brandt was a true Surrealist – probably the only true one in photography – but his was a curious Surrealism of the prosaic detail, writ large in its innocence.” Like Lee Miller, in 1930 to 1934 , Brandt worked at Man Ray’s studio in Paris ( i ) and like Miller this appears to have influenced much of his later work. Brandt’s work cannot be simply categorised as Surreal or street or documentary or portrait or landscape because it is sometimes all of those things and sometimes none of them. In looking for commonality of style or theme the images from the Barbican Exhibition of 1993, which feature in the aforementioned book (5), some common threads are obvious – there is a brooding darkness so even his day time images are sombre and threatening, night time images are common throughout the collection, people interact in unusual or even taboo ways, the female form becomes part of the landscape and after 1930 there is an Englishness about his work.
But where is the surrealism? Perhaps finding the link to Man Ray is the place to start, there is not the overt manipulation of the image but the same sexuality and cropping of the female form can be found in Brandt’s nudes from the 50s and 60s. (10) These are some of Brandt’s best known works and remain fresh and exciting despite the abundance of contemporary attempts to copy them.
Nude, Belgravia, London 1951 has the same sensuality of Man Ray’s studies of Lee Miller but it is the tightly cropped and erotically long white legs, the absence of the rest of the body, the composition and the “POV” that is Surreal and instantly recognisable as Brandt. Frank Hodgeson, in an interview with ASX (7) explains that the idea behind his nudes was that whilst everybody understands the female form the distortions created by his compositions lead to seeing other kinds of beauty. By using a wide angled lens Brandt distorts the perspective of the female form so, as Delany (8) explains “The camera within the Surrealist vision was not there to record reality but to transform it and make it strange.”
However, the focus here is Surrealism in the context of street photography and whilst the nudes provide an easy link back to Man Ray they are not of the street. Ian Jeffrey (5) argues that Brandt’s output was so diverse because he had a huge diversity of favourite things. He collected curiosities from the image world, appropriating anything that caught his eye. This open minded view of the world, this inherent receptiveness is his underlying style and one that leads to the abstraction in his nudes, and of street scenes such as A Snicket and Catch Point, ‘Hail, Hell and Halifax 1948’ and to his eye for quirky juxtaposition such as ‘Odd Corners of Museums’ 1944 where the mannequin’s arm lies alongside the penny farthing bicycle, the aftermath of a gruesome road accident.
The Surrealist influence in his photographs of England are suggested by signs of his probable fetiches and personal fantasies in his photographs of prostitutes, or at least his use of his wife, friends and family to recreate street scenes suggesting prostitution, an approach which, in itself blurs the lines between the real and unreal. There are also signs in his compositions and his use of light and shade to emphasise form over detail. The Surrealist works in the space between reality and fantasy and Brandt saw his dark room work as being as important as the original act of taking the photograph, as it was here that he altered the reality of his subject; he would draw in rain, if that was what was needed, dodge and burn to change day into night or adjust the light from a background window. He did not see photography as having a set of rules that constrained the production of the image, he used photography as a medium in the way he might have used paint saying ” Photography is the new medium and everything is allowed and everything should be tried”.
Brandt was a widely read and educated man who often saw the English landscape in the context of its native writers including Bronte, Hardy and Wordsworth. Lawrence Durrell in the 1961 preface to Perspectives of Nudes which is reprinted in Bill Brandt’s Nudes (10) argues that he approached photography as a poet, the camera was an extension of his eye so that “he was to photography what a sculptor is to marble”. This translated into a “prolonged mediation on the mystery of forms” and as Delany points out, led Brandt to search the streets for objects and events that he could photograph to reveal its Surrealist potential. His view of England before the war was of a place where people’s roles and rituals absorbed their individualism, making them caricatures of themselves.
Mix all these elements together and we can see the Surrealist influences, the juxtaposition of the rich and their servants, the odd rituals of the English social scene, the blurred lines between the reality and ritualistic unreality of the pre-war way of life that all bring the unconscious world into view showing England not as it was but how it might have appeared in a dream.
I highlight three Bill Brandt Photographs that could be loosely termed as street photography and that contain these Surrealist elements.
Firstly Asleep in a Sarcophagus 1940 which is a London blitz photo showing a strange bedroom scene. A man lies asleep on his back in a huge stone coffin with his belongings hanging from some kind of wooden frame that forms the bedstead; a clock, tea cup and paper bag (of sweets?) is laid out on an upturned crate which forms the bedside table. Many of the 1940 blitz photos have this same Surreal feel, the normality of going to bed and sleeping in a strange and unreal setting. The more the subject has tried to bring some normality to their makeshift bedroom the more unreal the picture becomes.
Secondly Army Suitability Tests 1942 where a naked man stands in a Heath Robinson structure that is obviously a shower complete with a chimney that suggests it might even be a hot shower and all set in the middle of a field; a second man is controlling the flow of water which appears to be being mixed with something from a tin can. Two very normal looking people doing something quite normal in a strange setting. Delany tells us that the whole series of Brandt’s photos taken in this army camp were suppressed until after the war because the War Office was concerned that they make the British Army look amateurish, which they probably did, but more relevantly they show how Brandt had an eye for making the everyday farcical.
From a much early time my personal favourite is One-Legged Man at Ascot 1933 which would have been taken around the time that Brandt was leaving Man Ray and Paris and making his home in England. We see a one-legged upper class man in a full morning suit, stiff collar, check trousers and spats, the uniform of the British upper classes at play; he is considering a form guide or race programme from which he appears to be reading aloud whilst supporting himself on a cane. To his left a two legged man of an obviously much lower class is holding a thin stick in his right hand, thus mirroring the toff, but at his feet sits a small monkey. It is a strange scene worthy of a caption competition.
In each of these examples and many others we see the Surreal influence on Brandt’s work, his eye for the unusual, strange and sometimes bizarre events that play out in public. Reality being stranger than fiction. And, to return to an earlier point which is expanded upon in note ( iv ), because Brandt influenced so many photographers that came after him including Tony Ray-Jones, Martin Parr and David Bailey who have, in turn, influenced a new generation of British photographers the Surrealist ideas that started in Paris in the 1920s and 30s continue to influence British street photography in the 21st century.
Notes to Text
( i ) In his illuminating book on the life of Bill Brandt Paul Delany (8) says that Brandt was probably employed by Man Ray partly because Brandt’s father was able to pay for the privilege and partly because Brandt had received two and half years training as a darkroom technician under Grete Kolliner, a Viennese studio photographer. Man Ray’s manipulated images would have required a high level of darkroom expertise which Brandt would have been able to offer.
( ii ) The Victoria and Albert Museum describes Lee Miller as “one of the most remarkable female icons of the 20th century” (4) Following a truly horrific childhood which included being raped at the age of seven and long term treatment for the resultant gonorrhoea she became a Vogue model in 1927. She sought out Man Ray in Paris in 1929 and became his assistant, model and lover and finally his apprentice. By 1932 she had her own photography studio in New York and made a name for herself in the world of fashion and celebrity portraiture. During WWII she photographed London during the blitz and worked as an accredited war correspondent for Vogue magazine. I briefly discussed her photos of Dachau and Buchenwald in my essay on Late Photography. Her last published work for Vogue was in 1953.
( iii) The son of a British father and a German mother, Bill Brandt was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1904 and lived in Germany before being sent to Switzerland in 1921 to be treated for tuberculosis and where he is believed to have taken up photography (6). In 1927 he moved to Vienna but throughout the 20s and 30s he traveled widely across Europe before deciding to live in England, settling in London in 1934. His work spans every genre of black and white photography including documenting London at night before and during the war, portraits of the great artists of his time and the landscapes of Britain. He died in 1983.
( iv ) This collection is so broad that I became sidetracked thinking of contemporary photographers whom he might have influenced – Josef Koudelka could have taken the picture of the boy leaning on his stick in Hortabagy, Hungary, July 1933 or The Coal Searcher Returning Home Jarrow 1936 or, for that matter, any of the landscapes that include walls and castles; The English at Home series from 1936 reminded me of Tony Ray-Jones, The Doomed East End of David Bailey, any of the series taken in the North of England could be from Martin Parr’s earlier black and white work. Is it stretching the point too far to see a connection between Brandt’s three men in an Alley which we know was staged with Jeff Wall’s work recreating events he had previously seen? Paul Delany in his biography Bill Brandt A Life (8) tells us that both Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths were influenced by Brandt’s Northern English studies so it is clear that Brandt is one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century.
(1) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.
(5) Brandt, Bill (1993) Bill Brandt: Photographs 1928 – 1983, edited with an introduction by Ian Jeffrey. London: Thames and Hudson in association with the Barbican Art Gallery.
(8) Delany, Paul (2004) Bill Brandt: A Life. First Paperback Edition. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House.
(9) Descharines, Robert & Néret, Gilles (1997) Dali : The Paintings 1904 – 1946. Cologne: Taschen.
(10) Hamworth-Booth, Mark (2012) Brandt’s Nudes. London: Thames and Hudson
(2) Ray, Man – Man Ray Biography (accessed December 11th 2014 at manray.net) – http://www.manray.net/biography.jsp
(3) Ray, Man (1931) Electricité [Image of Lee Miller with photograms of ribbons representing electric current ] (accessed December 11th 2014 at artsy.net) – https://artsy.net/artwork/man-ray-electricite-image-of-lee-miller-with-photograms-of-ribbons-representing-electric-current
(4) Miller, Lee – Victoria and Albert Museum (Accessed December 11th 2014 at vam.ac.uk) – http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/l/lee-miller/
(6) Brandt, Bill – Victoria and Albert Museum (Accessed December 11th 2014 at vam.ac.uk) – http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/b/bill-brandt-biography/
(7) Hodgeson, Francis. Cunnick, Geraint (2000) Bill Brandt: the Social Legacy of Bill Brandt – (Accessed December 12th 2014 at American Surburb X – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/06/theory-toppers-and-cloth-caps-social.html
Art History. What is Surrealism? (Accessed December 10th 2014) – http://arthistory.about.com/od/modernarthistory/a/Surrealism-Art-History-101-Basics.htm