Art History Lab

Unveiling the Realm of Surrealism Photography: Exploring Dreams and Disorientation

When was the last time you saw an image that fascinated you, one that left you questioning reality? If that’s a common experience for you, then you’ve likely encountered some photographers who incorporate surrealism in their work.

Surrealism photography is a technique that has been around for almost a century, and it has evolved over the years, increasing in popularity as more artists embrace it. In this article, we will take a closer look at surrealism photography, defining what it is, the influence of the movement on photography, and the fundamental characteristics that define this genre.

Definition of Surrealism Photography

Surrealism photography refers to a unique style of photography that aims to go beyond reality. It is a form of art that blurs the lines between the real and the imagined, creating new dimensions that leave the viewer with a sense of intrigue and wonder.

To achieve this, surrealism photographers often manipulate images in post-production to emphasize dream-like or otherworldly qualities.

Surrealism photography interprets the world in unexpected ways.

The photographs are often an expression of the photographer’s innermost feelings, thoughts, and ideas, which manifest outwardly by blurring reality with imaginative, sometimes bizarre, components. The photographs are a challenge to conventional photography, reflecting a contemporary work of art that combines elements of painting and graphic design.

Influence of Surrealism Movement on Photography

The influence of surrealism movement in photography dates back to early parts of the 20th century, defined as a period of intense experimentation in art. After the first World War, artists began searching for alternative ways to express themselves, which contributed to surrealism photography’s emergence.

Surrealism photography drew inspiration from surrealism art movements, which manifested themselves in all kinds of art, including photography. The Surrealist movement in photography flourished in the 1920s in Germany and France.

Photographers, such as Andre Kertesz,

Man Ray, and Hans Bellmer, began exploring the possibilities of the new art form. Surrealism photography moved with the same force as other art forms since the pioneers of that period all shared a single goal: to reveal the inner world of the mind and express it in visual form.

Fundamental Characteristics of Surrealism Photography

Surrealism photography is based on a collection of fundamental characteristics that define the genre, and it’s these elements that make photographs in this style stand out from others. These characteristics include;

Unexpected Combinations

Perhaps the most crucial characteristic of surrealism photography is the incorporation of unexpected combinations. Photographers create images by pairing elements that would not typically belong together, such as everyday objects, landscapes, and people.

They mastermind absurd situations and juxtapose them to create new visuals. Unexpected combinations can lead to a sense of tension and anxiety, drawing the viewer into the image.

Dream-Like Imagery

Another essential characteristic of surrealism photography is the creation of dream-like imagery. Dreamlike imagery refers to photographs that appear to be inspired by the world of dreams.

The images are soft and often blurred with an added hint of mystique, taking the viewer on a journey through a surreal landscape. This technique also involves manipulation in post-production to create a lyrical effect.

Surreal Symbolism and Metaphor

Surrealism photography also uses surreal symbolism and metaphor to convey ideas and emotions. Using a language of symbols, the photographs invite viewers to interpret them in their way.

Photographers often use metaphor and symbolism to communicate abstract concepts such as death, love, fear, or hope. The symbolism and metaphors are often used to transport important messages, with one element standing for something else, emphasizing the meaning behind the photograph.

Disorientating Perspectives

Surrealism photography is also characterized by the use of disorienting perspectives. Photographers often use uncommon, unconventional, and sometimes uncomfortable angles to showcase the image.

From a visual standpoint, the created confusion in the photograph serves to create uncertainty in the viewer’s mind, who then remains unsure of what’s in front of them, wondering what’s happening and what’s not. This element of disorientation creates a compelling sense of inquiry in the audience.


Finally, surrealism photography often employs juxtaposition a technique that involves placing two contrasting elements next to each other to achieve artistic depth. The resulting effect can be humorous, striking, or unsettling.

At its core, this technique can be used to highlight the discrepancy between two different perspectives, provoking the viewer to explore the image’s meaning more deeply. Conclusion:

In conclusion, surrealism photography is an art form that has given new expression to the world of photography by allowing artists to create something that’s beyond reality.

Its unique characteristics have helped redefine what a photograph can be, and artists in the genre continue to push the boundaries with their creative and inventive techniques. Understanding the fundamental aspects of surrealism photography provides insight for those curious about the craft provides key knowledge for those seeking to experience and explore the imagination in art.

From unexpected combinations, to dreamlike imagery and disorienting perspectives – surrealism photography transports viewers to a world that tests the limits of what we consider “real”. Expansion:

Double Exposure

One of the widely used techniques in surrealism photography is double exposure. Double exposure is a photography technique that involves overlapping two or more images within the same frame, producing a single composite photograph.

Photographers can achieve this technique either in-camera or through post-processing by superimposing two different images. Double exposure photography creates a unique and surreal effect where different elements blend into one another, creating a powerful imagery that tests the limits of what we perceive to be real.

Additionally, this technique gives photographers the freedom to combine various elements such as nature, lights, and people to create a complex visual that captures the imagination.

Photo Montage

Photo montage is a process where several images are combined to create a single photograph. Different images can be cut, merged, and collaged to weave a story or create a unique visual.

Photo montage is an essential technique in surrealism photography, as it enables the photographer to create a new creative narrative with their images, challenging what is perceived as “reality.”

In photo montage, photographers usually have complete control of the different elements that make up the resulting image. They can choose to combine images that would not necessarily go together in real life, leading to fantastic and otherworldly creations.

In-Camera Techniques

In-camera techniques refer to the manipulation of camera settings to create surrealism photographs without the need for post-processing. One popular in-camera technique in surrealism photography is long exposure.

Long exposure involves keeping the shutter open for an extended period, allowing the camera to capture movement, creating a blurred result that symbolizes a dream-like and ethereal state. Another in-camera technique involves the use of lens effects such as fisheye, tilt-shift, and others to create unique perspectives on everyday scenes, transforming reality into an alternate version of itself.

Forced Perspective

Forced perspective is a technique in surrealism photography that plays with the viewer’s perception of size and angles. This technique involves manipulating different sizes and angles of objects, creating a misperception of scale and depth.

Forced perspective aims to create an optical illusion through the use of objects and angles in such a way that they appear different than they would naturally be. Forced perspective thus creates an alternate reality that is both intriguing and confusing.

Images created through this technique leave the viewer questioning what is real, drawing them into a different world and evoking a sense of wonder.

Image Manipulation

Image manipulation involves modifying photographs through digital software. This technique is particularly useful in surrealism photography as it allows photographers to manipulate the image to create the desired effect.

Photo manipulation can involve anything from adding or removing elements to adjusting colors and tones. Moreover, image manipulation allows photographers to combine different techniques such as double exposure, photo montages, and in-camera techniques to create stunning visual effects that are impossible to achieve with traditional photography.

Man Ray

Man Ray was a Dada and Surrealist artist, photographer, and filmmaker. He is considered one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century and is best known for his use of photograms, a type of photographic image made without a camera, where objects are placed on the paper or negative and exposed to light.

Man Ray’s works made an immense contribution to the growth and development of Surrealist photography.

Andr Breton

Andr Breton was the French poet and essayist who founded the Surrealist movement and authored the first Surrealist Manifesto. He is also known for his exceptional work in Surrealist photography, which demonstrates his unique approach to blending photographic realism with symbolic and poetic meaning.

His photography is characterized by his profound imaginative depth and uniquely creative angles.

Duane Michals

Duane Michals is an American photographer best known for his narrative-style photographs. Michals’ photography is characterized by his use of sequential images that capture movement, creating whimsical and dreamlike visual effects.

His work is unique in that it focuses more on the editorial use of photography to tell stories and convey emotions.

Jerry Uelsmann

Jerry Uelsmann is an American photographer who is widely known for his combination printing techniques used to create surrealistic images. Uelsmann’s photographs often incorporate multiple exposures and darkroom manipulations to create a complex visual that challenges the viewer’s perception of what is real.

Critically acclaimed, Uelsmann played a vital role in the development of Surrealism photography in the United States.

Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman is an American artist and photographer who gained recognition for her self-portraits exploring social constructs and gender roles. Her photographs often depict her in different roles or characters, which often challenge, subvert, or ridicule social conventions.

Sherman’s works inspire a conversation about society’s expectations and prejudices, depicting women in wholly different and surrealistic roles, evoking a sense of intrigue and wonder. Conclusion:

Surrealism photography is an art form informed by creative use of photographic techniques, with the goal to extract surreal elements from the world and incorporating them into a visual representation.

Techniques such as double exposure, photo montage, in-camera techniques, forced perspective, and image manipulation add texture and depth to surrealism photography. Famous photographers such as

Man Ray,

Andr Breton,

Duane Michals,

Jerry Uelsmann, and

Cindy Sherman have defined and propelled the genre by utilizing their techniques in ways that leave their audience longing for more.


“Le Violon d’Ingres” by

Man Ray

“Le Violon d’Ingres” is an iconic photograph by

Man Ray, which showcases his mastery of surrealism and his ability to transform the ordinary into something extraordinary. The photograph features the back of a female nude, with the artist himself placing f-holes on her lower back using black paint or charcoal.

These f-holes are typically found on the upper part of a stringed instrument, like a violin, hence the title of the photograph, which translates to “Ingres’ Violin.”

This image merges the female form with the symbolism of music, blurring the lines between the human body and the artistic realm.

Man Ray’s use of the f-holes adds a playful and whimsical element to the photograph, challenging traditional notions of how the body should be represented.

“Le Violon d’Ingres” is a prime example of how surrealism photography can mix unexpected elements to create a visually captivating and thought-provoking image. “In Voluptus Mors” by Salvador Dal

“In Voluptus Mors,” created by the renowned surrealist artist Salvador Dal, is a photograph that delves into the themes of mortality and desire.

The photograph depicts a skull formed by seven nude women lying together in a way that creates the illusion of a skull when viewed from a certain angle. Dal’s “In Voluptus Mors” explores the paradox of life and death, beauty and decay.

It challenges conventional perceptions of death by juxtaposing it with the sensuality and vitality of the human body. This photograph encapsulates Dal’s ability to merge the surreal and the symbolic to provoke a profound emotional response in the viewer.

“Fallen Angel” by

Duane Michals

“Fallen Angel” is a photograph by

Duane Michals that showcases his unique approach to storytelling through sequential images. The photograph captures a scene where an angel appears to be floating downwards, her wings reaching out towards the ground.

The sequential nature of the image allows us to witness the angel’s descent, creating a narrative within a single frame. Michals’ use of sequential photography adds a dynamic element to the image, transforming a static scene into a visual story.

“Fallen Angel” represents the fusion of surrealism and narrative, inviting the viewer to engage with the narrative and interpret the image’s symbolism in their own way. “Untitled (House and Roots)” by

Jerry Uelsmann

Jerry Uelsmann’s “Untitled (House and Roots)” is a surreal photograph that plays with scale and perspective to create a dreamlike effect. The photograph features a house with oversized tree roots sprouting from it, as if the house is an extension of the natural world.

The merging of architecture and nature challenges the viewer’s perception of space and reality. Uelsmann’s manipulation of scale and perspective gives “Untitled (House and Roots)” a sense of otherworldliness, blurring the boundaries between the natural and the man-made.

The image evokes a sense of mystery and wonder, transporting the viewer into a surreal and imaginative realm. “Untitled #140 (Fairy Tales Series)” by

Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled #140” is part of her renowned Fairy Tales Series, where she explores the themes of gender roles and identity through self-portraiture. In this photograph, Sherman showcases herself as a character within a surreal narrative.

The image portrays a woman sitting in a dilapidated room, surrounded by eerie, distorted objects and possessing an expression of vulnerability. Sherman uses role-playing to examine societal expectations and stereotypes, pushing against traditional norms of femininity.

By placing herself in different roles and scenarios, Sherman creates a sense of ambiguity, allowing the viewer to question the constructed nature of identity and the narratives that shape our perception of reality.

Experimenting With Various Techniques

When creating surreal photography, it is essential to experiment with various techniques to achieve unique and unexpected effects. Embrace techniques such as double exposure, photo montage, in-camera tricks, and image manipulation to push the boundaries of reality and explore different artistic possibilities.

By venturing outside of your comfort zone and exploring new techniques, you can create captivating and visually stimulating surrealistic photographs.

The Use of Props and Costumes

Props and costumes can play a significant role in surreal photography by adding symbolism and creating a visual narrative. Consider selecting objects and clothing that evoke emotions or represent abstract concepts.

Experiment with combining unexpected elements to create visual tension and intrigue. By incorporating props and costumes, you can enhance the surreal and fantastical elements of your photographs, taking them to another level of artistic expression.

Picking Unusual Locations

Selecting unusual locations can inject an added layer of surrealism into your photographs. Look for locations that have a unique atmosphere or distinctive architectural features.

Abandoned buildings, desolate landscapes, or dreamlike settings can help transport the viewer into an alternate reality. Unusual locations provide a canvas for your imagination to run wild and offer an opportunity to capture surreal and thought-provoking images.

The Application of Lighting and Shadows

Lighting and shadows play a vital role in creating the atmosphere and mood of surreal photography. Experiment with different lighting techniques, such as chiaroscuro or low-key lighting, to add depth and intensity to your images.

Shadows can be used strategically to create a sense of mystery or distortion, adding to the overall surreal effect. By manipulating lighting and shadows, you can enhance the dreamlike quality of your photographs, pulling the viewer further into the surreal world you have created.

Experimenting With Scale and Perspective

To create optical illusions and push the boundaries of perception, experiment with scale and perspective in your surreal photography. Play with the size of objects or manipulate the distances between them to create visual surprises.

By bending perspectives and altering proportions, you can challenge the viewer’s expectations and create a sense of wonder and disorientation. This experimentation with scale and perspective adds a surreal and intriguing quality to your photographs.


Notable examples of surrealism photography, such as “Le Violon d’Ingres” by

Man Ray, “In Voluptus Mors” by Salvador Dal, “Fallen Angel” by

Duane Michals, “Untitled (House and Roots)” by

Jerry Uelsmann, and “Untitled #140 (Fairy Tales Series)” by

Cindy Sherman, demonstrate the artistic power and impact of the surreal genre. These photographs push the boundaries of reality and invite viewers to question conventional notions of identity, space, and perception.

In order to create surreal photography, one must embrace experimentation with various techniques, utilize props and costumes to add symbolism, select unusual locations, manipulate lighting and shadows, and explore scale and perspective to create optical illusions. By incorporating these tips into your creative process, you can unlock the potential to create captivating and visually striking surrealistic photographs that transport viewers to extraordinary and thought-provoking realms.


Influence of Surrealism Photography

The influence of surrealism photography extends beyond its own medium, seeping into various art forms and shaping the landscape of modern art. Surrealism photography challenged traditional notions of reality and expanded the possibilities of artistic expression, inspiring artists in other mediums to explore the boundaries of imagination and creativity.

Through its unique techniques and visual storytelling, surrealism photography opened doors for artists working in painting, sculpture, and other visual art forms. The dreamlike imagery, unexpected combinations, and symbolic narratives found in surrealism photography have influenced artists to experiment with similar elements in their own work.

In this way, surrealism photography has broadened the creative horizons and facilitated the exploration of new imaginative realms.

Surrealism Photography in Advertisements

Surrealism photography has also made a significant impact on the world of advertising. Advertisers often adopt surrealistic approaches to capture attention, provoke thought, and leave a lasting impression on viewers.

By utilizing techniques such as unexpected combinations, disorienting perspectives, and dreamlike imagery, surrealism photography adds an element of intrigue and creative energy to advertisements. Surrealism in advertising can help brands stand out in a crowded marketplace, as it offers a unique visual language that taps into the viewer’s subconscious and creates an emotional connection.

Surrealism photography allows advertisers to transcend conventional limits and communicate complex ideas, values, or desires in a visually engaging and impactful manner.

Influence on other Art Forms

Surrealism photography has not only impacted visual art forms but has also influenced other artistic disciplines such as sculpture and literature. Sculptors have drawn inspiration from the dreamlike qualities and unconventional perspectives of surrealism photography, translating those elements into three-dimensional form.

By incorporating surrealist techniques into their work, sculptors create pieces that challenge spatial norms and play with viewers’ expectations. Literature has also been influenced by surrealism photography, particularly in the realm of poetry and fiction.

Surrealist photography’s ability to evoke emotions, create narratives, and challenge reality has inspired writers to explore similar themes in their own storytelling. Through vivid descriptions and imaginative plotlines, literature can emulate the surrealistic experience offered by visual art, blurring the boundaries between different art forms.

Sensitivity to Subject Matter

When creating surrealism photography, it is important to approach subject matter with sensitivity, particularly when dealing with potentially traumatic or sensitive topics. The use of provocative or disturbing imagery requires careful consideration of the potential impact on viewers.

Artists must recognize the potential triggers and ensure that their work does not cause unnecessary distress. It is crucial to understand the power of visual representation and the potential harm that can result from the misrepresentation or exploitation of sensitive subjects.

Artists should approach these topics with empathy, respect, and a deep understanding of the lived experiences of those involved.

Avoiding Stereotypes and Misrepresentation

Surrealism photography pushes the boundaries of reality, but artists must be cautious about unintentionally perpetuating stereotypes or misrepresenting specific groups or cultures. It is imperative to approach the creation of surrealistic imagery with cultural sensitivity and a critical awareness of the broader social context.

Artists should strive to challenge conventions, dismantle stereotypes, and celebrate diversity in their visual narratives. By avoiding harmful and demeaning representations, artists can create works that promote inclusivity, understanding, and appreciation for all individuals and communities.

Providing Context and Explanation

Artists working in surrealism photography often create images that are open to interpretation, allowing viewers to engage with and derive their own meanings. However, providing context and explanations can help viewers better understand the intention behind the artwork and promote a deeper appreciation of the intricacies involved.

Artists should consider providing titles or accompanying narratives that provide insight into their creative process, highlighting the symbolism and themes embedded within their work. By sharing their perspectives and intentions, artists can guide viewers towards a more informed and nuanced understanding of the surrealism photography they have created.


Surrealism photography has had a profound impact on modern art, influencing different art forms, including sculpture and literature. Its influence extends beyond the realm of art, permeating advertising and other commercial media.

However, artists working in surrealism photography must also grapple with ethical considerations, such as sensitivity to subject matter, avoiding stereotypes and misrepresentation, and providing context and explanation for their creations. By grappling with these ethical considerations, artists can ensure that their work is respectful, responsible, and thought-provoking, leaving a meaningful impact on viewers while maintaining a positive contribution to the art world as a whole.


Understanding the Cultural and Historical Context

To fully appreciate surrealism photography, it is essential to understand the cultural and historical context in which the movement emerged. Surrealism was born out of the artistic and intellectual landscape of the early 20th century, a time marked by social and political upheaval, technological advancements, and a questioning of traditional values.

The Surrealist movement sought to explore the subconscious mind, challenge societal norms, and push the boundaries of artistic expression. By understanding the cultural and historical context, viewers can gain insight into the motivations and intentions behind surrealism photography, allowing for a deeper appreciation of the art form.

Exploring References and Symbolism

Surrealism photography often incorporates references to mythology, literature, and other artistic movements. Exploring these references can enhance the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of the work.

Symbolism is a common element found in surrealism photography, allowing artists to convey deeper meanings and engage viewers on multiple levels. In order to fully appreciate surrealism photography, viewers can research and delve into the symbolism present in the images.

By deciphering the symbols and identifying their cultural, historical, or personal significance, viewers can unlock hidden layers of meaning within the artwork, further immersing themselves in the surrealist experience. Considering the Photographer’s Background

An artist’s background and personal experiences often shape their artistic vision and creative process.

Understanding a photographer’s background can provide valuable context and insight into their work, deepening the appreciation for their surrealism photography. By researching the photographer’s biography, inspirations, and influences, viewers can gain a greater understanding of the artistic choices made by the photographer.

Factors such as cultural heritage, personal experiences, and artistic influences can all contribute to the unique perspective and creative approach of the photographer. This knowledge allows viewers to connect with the artist on a deeper level and appreciate the nuances and intricacies within their surrealism photographs.

Moreover, learning about the historical and social context in which the photographer lived and worked can shed light on the impact of their work within the larger art world. This exploration allows viewers to place the photographer’s contributions within a broader artistic landscape, facilitating a deeper understanding and appreciation of their surrealism photography.


To truly appreciate surrealism photography, viewers should take the time to understand the cultural and historical context in which the movement emerged. Exploring the references and symbolism present in the photographs can also deepen the appreciation for the art form, as it allows viewers to engage with the multiple layers of meaning within the artwork.

Additionally, considering the photographer’s background and inspirations provides valuable insight into their creative process and enhances the connection between the viewer and the artist. By taking these steps to understand and appreciate surrealism photography, viewers can experience a richer and more profound engagement with this unique and imaginative art form.

Surrealism photography is a captivating art form that challenges traditional notions of reality and pushes the boundaries of artistic expression. Understanding the cultural and historical context, exploring references and symbolism, and considering the photographer’s background are essential for fully appreciating this unique genre.

By delving into the motivations and intentions behind surrealism photography, deciphering symbolism, and connecting with the artist’s perspective, viewers can unlock hidden layers of meaning and engage with the art on a deeper level. Surrealism photography has the power to transport us to extraordinary realms and provoke thought, leaving a lasting impression that challenges our perception of the world.

It invites us to question reality, embrace the imaginative, and celebrate the boundless possibilities of artistic creativity.

Popular Posts