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What is Surreal Photography?

Photography depicts reality; it captures a fraction of a second in time – a moment that is distinct from the one before and the one after. It is memorialized in film (or, today, the digital equivalent). It becomes an artifact, a record. Surreal photography is just that: surreal. Beyond the real.

Blurring the Line of Reality and Fantasy

As psychologist John Suler writes in Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche, surreal photography “tamper[s] with the boundary between reality and fantasy, showing us things that are impossible in everyday life. They draw on a vivid imagination that leads to interpretations of the world extending beyond our usual perceptions of it.”

Surreal photography is often described as unsettling, strange, dream-like, or just flat-out weird. It can be disorienting or uncomfortable seeing a photographic depiction of a scene we know is not possible. In a Tommy Ingberg photo, for instance, a man stands with an umbrella. Nothing surreal about that. But over his head, instead of a cloud, is a massive boulder. It is suspended in air, but one gets the sense that, at any moment, it must come crashing down.

In a true surreal masterpiece, Philippe Halsman photographed Salvador Dali. On the right is Dali’s Leda Atomica. Then it gets strange: three flying cats appear to be emerging from the painting in a stream of water. Everything is floating: Dali, his easel, a chair in the left corner. It is chaotic, somewhat disconcerting, and there is, of course, a little  madness and fun thrown in. 

The Story

What’s the message? What’s the point? What are these photographers trying to say? According to a number of surreal artists, the point is for the viewer to tell the story – not the photographer. Ingberg says, “The pictures start off with a feeling, a story, a riddle for the viewer to think about. I strive for simple, scaled back compositions with few elements, where every part adds to the story, but where there are still gaps for the viewer to fill.”

Photographer Erik Johansson agrees. He says his photos do not contain some hidden message. Instead, “it’s more up to the viewer to see the message… When I would read children’s books as a kid, I rarely read the text. I just wanted to look at the pictures and create my own story. People should be able to do the same with my pictures.”

In one of Johansson’s photos, a man riding a bike down an idyllic dirt lane suddenly finds himself facing a perfectly vertical drop. His bike to the side, he kneels down and looks at the long drop. In another, a young man is seen punching himself in the face – which crumples like an old paper bag. What’s the story? It is in the eye of the beholder.


This History

Surreal photography has a long and storied past; the Philippe Halsman photo mentioned earlier, for instance, was created in 1948. It took Halsman 28 tries – and some carefully placed wires – to achieve his vision. Artists Man Ray and Maurice Tabard worked even earlier. Long before there was Photoshop, these photographers used techniques like double exposures, montages, combination printing, and solarization (where the light and dark tones are reversed) to create surreal masterpieces that retain their ability to inspire those stories – and, perhaps, inspire a bit of unease and awe at the same time.

Man Ray once said, “Nature does not create works of art. It is we, and the faculty of interpretation peculiar to the human mind, that see art.” The interpretation is critical to surreal photography, and as we have noted, that interpretation is often best left in the hands – and minds – of the viewer on http://www.bumblejax.com/ . Today’s artists use some of the same techniques as their surrealism predecessors. Montage, for example, is simply joining two or more photos to create a single, cohesive picture. Another common technique is floating the subject or objects in a photo. Halsman did this with wires, but today’s artists can get a hand from Photoshop.

From adjusting shutter speed to blurring backgrounds to experimenting with perspective, artists are able bend reality – and create a new one. Photoshop and other software programs and apps also offer a virtually endless array of options and capabilities. The most potent tool, however, is the photographer’s imagination and willingness to see beyond that which is visible. They capture a feeling and give the viewers the opportunity to tell a story.



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We encourage our visitors to indulge in the fantastic and experience  joys beyond which they normally allow themselves.

We encourage our visitors to indulge in the fantastic and experience  joys beyond which they normally allow themselves.

We encourage our visitors to indulge in the fantastic and experience  joys beyond which they normally allow themselves.

We encourage our visitors to indulge in the fantastic and experience  joys beyond which they normally allow themselves.

We encourage our visitors to indulge in the fantastic and experience  joys beyond which they normally allow themselves.

We encourage our visitors to indulge in the fantastic and experience  joys beyond which they normally allow themselves.

image
We encourage our visitors to indulge in the fantastic and experience joys beyond which they normally allow themselves.
image
We encourage our visitors to indulge in the fantastic and experience joys beyond which they normally allow themselves.
image
We encourage our visitors to indulge in the fantastic and experience joys beyond which they normally allow themselves.
image
We encourage our visitors to indulge in the fantastic and experience joys beyond which they normally allow themselves.
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