I’d like to talk a bit today about surreal photography. The word surreal is defined as a thing having the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream. It is bizarre not quite right but pleasant or amusing in the sense that we find our dreams pleasant or amusing. I think that the “not quite right” is an important part of what makes an image surreal. We have in our minds a set of image norms and if these are violated, perhaps with a donkeys’ heads on a man’s body. “I dreamt I was enamored of an ass.”
I suppose that my favorite collection of surreal photographs is the images by Abelardo Morrell to illustrate Alice in Wonderland. Morrell has taken the original John Tenniel drawings for Alice and Wonderland, cut the figures out into standup characters and placed them into appropriate settings, for instance a tea party where the table is a large book.
What started me conjecturing about surrealism in photography were two portfolios posted on MSN. The first is “Surreal Landscapes” and the second “Surreal Art.” “Surreal Landscapes” points again to the very important role that color plays in our perception. Most of these images would not achieve the surreal if they were black and white. All of these pictures are of real places and in many of them the surrealistic aspect is imparted by the unexpected, albeit natural, coloration. Take, for instance, the image of the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park in Gansu Province, China, with its very strange, yes surreal, layered coloration. Surrealism also comes from shapes and an expected reality. Consider the railroad cutting through the forest and headed for infinity and adventure. Here, it is the aperture in the trees and its circular nature that creates the sense of the surreal. And then there is my favorite of the collection an image of crooked trees in the Namibian desert reaching up to a time lapse image of star trails circling the Pole Star.
“Surreal Art” is more classic surrealism – cockroaches with human heads in true Kafkaesque fashion. My favorite among these has to be the photograph of the woman on a Sydney Australian beach gazing out at a giant sunny side up egg in the sand. This picture is certainly sizzling.
I think that the key in all of this is the way that surreal images challenge our accepted norms and in so doing bring a smile to our faces. The dreamlike quality of these photographs cannot be over emphasized. It is a defining feature of the surreal and transports us to the imaginary limitless world that our dreams open up for us.
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan or a Vision in a Dream,” (1797/1816)