In 1924, with André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, Surrealism was born. Drawn to the writings of Sigmund Freud, artists of the movement explored the unconscious in their works. They embraced the element of chance, engaged with dreams, and created a visual language of latent sexual desire through symbolism and the female form. Many of them also looked to Freud’s idea of “the uncanny” to transform the recognizable world into an unfamiliar version of itself to disquieting effect.
Anti-authoritarian and anti-Fascist, the Paris-based movement drew a wide range of artists. Their varied practices have inspired diverse subsequent movements, from Pop to Feminist Art. Photography, unlike painting, posed the added constraint—and challenge—of dependence on the tangible world to create unexpected representations. Below are eight Surrealist photographers who raised questions on the nature of reality, humanity, and individual identity as they captured the world around them in novel ways.
Lee Miller, who is often remembered as Man Ray’s muse, lover, and assistant, was also a photographer with a formidable career of her own. As the 1920s drew to a close, the 22-year-old Miller journeyed from New York to Paris, where she fell in with the avant-garde art scene and met Ray. She likely discovered solarization—a photographic technique that partially reversed the dark and light areas of an image—for the use of which he is celebrated. During World War II, she produced hard-hitting images as a Vogue correspondent. Her earlier Surrealist works render familiar objects strange: chairs viewed from above trail ominous shadows; a broken typewriter recalls a smashed insect; and a woman is pictured as a floating head. The fragmented human bodies she depicts perhaps stem in part from Miller’s own traumatic history; she was raped at age seven by a family friend, and her father subsequently photographed her nude for years.
Raised in Buenos Aires and Paris, at age 19 Dora Maar settled more permanently in the French capital. There, she became a classmate of Henri Cartier-Bresson and launched a serious photography career that would earn her a spot in London’s 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition. Before officially joining the group under the encouragement of Breton and writer Georges Bataille, Maar created photomontages and other disorienting images for fashion magazines that anticipated her jump into Surrealism. Her later photos similarly feature unusual scenarios and superimpositions, such as Pablo Picasso in a bathing suit holding a bull’s skull in front of his face. Unfortunately, after she became the Spanish artist’s lover (and documented his famed Guernica, 1937, in progress), her career faltered, as he led her to give up photography—a lesser medium in his eyes—for painting.
French artist Claude Cahun defied authority and the status quo both personally and politically. She was a founding member of the Surrealist group Contre-Attaque, which opposed Hitler and fascism. While living on the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands during World War II, she and her lover Marcel Moore, who was also her stepsister, created and distributed anti-Nazi flyers, for which they were sentenced to death (though the penalty was never carried out). Joining Surrealism early, in the 1920s, Cahun also challenged misogyny, homophobia, and antisemitism within the group itself, as a gender-nonconforming, Jewish artist. Insisting on the gender category of “neuter” for herself, she created performative, proto-feminist photographs—many of them self-portraits—that play with identity, combine traditionally masculine and feminine attributes, and deconstruct the concept of the self.
From a carousel in shadow to a grinning mannequin in a pageboy hat, Florence Henri’s subjects become unsettling in slightly off-kilter compositions. Originally trained as a painter, she made her foray into photography as a student at the Bauhaus in the late ’20s, and stated later in life, “What I want above all is to compose the photograph as I do with painting.” Acclaimed for her tightly orchestrated images, she is hailed not just as a Surrealist but also as an innovator in the ’20s photography movement New Vision, which treated the medium as a directed and illuminating reflection of the world. Stemming from her early exposure to Cubist and Constructivist painting, many of her photos incorporate mirrors to play with perspective, as well as to create doubled images—a recurring Surrealist motif.
Man Ray moved to Paris in 1921 and became a leading member of the city’s Dada and Surrealist circles. The American artist is lauded for both his photographs and his cameraless photograms, which he eponymously dubbed “rayographs.” His images range from portraits—with subjects including Miller, Meret Oppenheim, Marcel Duchamp dressed as his female alter-ego, Rrose Sélavy—to X-ray-like photograms of semi-recognizable everyday objects. Like much of male-generated Surrealist output, Ray’s photos also fetishize the female body: a 1929 portrait titled Female Nude portrays the anonymous unclothed sitter from below the neck, while a later image imagines the female nude as a sculpture erotically tied with twine.
Before he became one of the foremost Surrealist photographers, Maurice Tabard snapped fashion photographs for the likes of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue in the 1920s. Later that decade and in the ’30s, while assisting Ray, he delved into solarization, infrared photography, and double exposure, creating strange, often-layered works that meld fantasy, reality, beauty, and distortion. Composition (1929), for example, combines multiple negatives to forge a palimpsest of a nude woman, enveloping hands, and a nondescript architectural space. The image evokes a dreamlike, nearly spiritual metamorphosis. A solarized portrait from around 1930 is similarly disorienting; what at first appear as squiggles in various shades of grey resolve themselves into the subject’s facial features upon closer inspection.
Closely connected to Dada artists like George Grosz in Berlin, Hans Bellmer joined the Surrealists in 1938, when he moved to Paris to dodge Nazi censure of his work. Perhaps springing in part from anti-authoritarian irreverence, he maintained a preoccupation with the adolescent female form, to which he paid grotesque homage by creating—and then photographing—large-scale plaster-coated dolls with jointed, recombinable limbs. In one striking image, two pairs of legs wearing ankle socks and Mary Janes, united by a ball-joint above their groins, form a single, insect-like being. In these sexualized photos, Bellmer pushed the Surrealist motif of the dummy or mannequin to the extreme, exploring taboo sexual desire through erotic-yet-disturbing, highly dramatic compositions. Turning to drawing to depict bulbous forms engaged in sex acts nearly up to his death in 1975, Bellmer once explained that he aimed to “creat[e] new desires.”
Belgian artist René Magritte is known primarily for his thought-provoking paintings, but as a recent exhibition at New York’s Bruce Silverstein Gallery stood to show, he was also a prolific photographer. Never exhibited while he was alive, a trove of his photographs and films was discovered a decade after his 1967 death. Included are family photos, snapshots of his life in Brussels, and posed shots featuring himself and his Surrealist friends. In many of the last category, Magritte experimented with images and compositions that he later translated into now-well-known paintings, such as subjects who mask their faces behind objects or turn their backs to the viewer. As he once stated of the nature of perception and the visible world, “Everything we see hides another thing.”