The Women Photographers Redefining Surrealism for the 21st Century

Jacqui Palumbo
Mar 19, 2020 7:13PM
Viviane Sassen
Untitled from Roxane II, 024, 2017

In Surrealist circles in early 20th-century Paris, artists explored the sensuality and desire of the subconscious mind. With prominent male artists at the forefront of the movement, the female form came under their gaze. Women’s bodies “became the ultimate surrealist object, it was mystified, fetishized, and othered,” Izabella Scott wrote for Artsy in 2017. The photographers of the Surrealist movement were no exception.

Man Ray famously turned Kiki de Montparnasse’s torso into a violin, while André Kertész distorted models to monstrous effect. Women photographers of the era—such as Dora Maar and Lee Miller—have often been reduced to mere muses, their own important practices ignored or overshadowed until being revisited in recent years.


Today, there is no official movement for Surrealism in photography, but many artists have picked up the torch, exploring what Sigmund Freud called “the uncanny” to render the comfort of the known world a little less recognizable.

Many women, in particular, are determining what contemporary Surrealism in photography looks like, exploring dreamlike worlds, strange juxtapositions, and futuristic concepts to comment on selfhood, wider social issues, the subconscious, and the illusory nature of the medium itself. Here are seven female photographers redefining contemporary Surrealism.

Cig Harvey
Scout & The Stars, Rockport, Maine, 2013
Kopeikin Gallery
Cig Harvey
White Witch Moth, Devin, Rockport, Maine, 2012

In British photographer Cig Harvey’s work, domestic scenes become a potent setting for magic. Her daughter Scout curls underneath a scatter of glittering stars on a dark wall, or opens her mouth wide to reveal a red string wrapped around a tooth. In self-portraits, Harvey is often obscured or turned away, appearing as a mysterious narrator of her life. She reflects on childhood, memory, and time with a sense of eccentricity and poignancy that gently pushes her work into the realm of magical realism. There is a delicacy to the work, in dappled light on skin or the dainty tail feathers of birds. That fragility is the heart of her third monograph, You An Orchestra You a Bomb (2017). Harvey made the work after a car crash left her unable to speak for weeks; the body of work reexamined the things dearest to her after nearly losing them.

Harvey sometimes makes direct references to magic, such as a magician’s hat held up by two outstretched arms. More often, she alludes to the sense of the power intrinsic to the natural world, through nocturnal florals or the wide wings of a white moth. Her latest series, “Pink is a Touch, Red is a Stare” (2018–present), is her most minimal, with vivid red and pink fabrics bursting against white linen, snow, or the dead of night.

Aida Muluneh
Lest We Remember (Memories in Development), 2017
David Krut Projects

Aïda Muluneh was a photojournalist for the Washington Post before she began experimenting with her artistic voice. Muluneh creates stylized and colorful Afrofuturist images that explore her own selfhood as an Ethiopian woman, as well as her broader African identity. Body paint is a hallmark of her work, used to reference African tradition while presenting her subjects “as different characters void of nationality and ethnicity, like blank slates,” she told The Guardian in 2017.

Muluneh was born in Ethiopia but spent much of her life abroad before returning to her country of birth. She is based out of the capital, Addis Ababa, and founded the country’s first international photo festival, Addis Foto Fest.

In her vivid photographs, rich with symbolism and nods to her heritage, Muluneh responds to how Africa is typically lensed. Most recently, she was commissioned by the NGO WaterAid to shoot a campaign on the need for access to clean water in rural areas. With “Water Life” (2019), Muluneh stayed true to her highly conceptual vision, staging scenes of striking primary colors in Dallol, one of the driest places on earth. “The world is continually bombarded with images of the social plight of Africa,” she has said of the shoot. “My focus…was to address these topics without the cliché that we see in mainstream media.”

Hannah Whitaker
Five Hands 2, 2017

At first glance, Hannah Whitaker’s graphic photographs appear like collages. Layering colors, shapes, images, and silhouettes, she builds her compositions skillfully, but leaves room for the slight imperfections that reveal the nature of her process.

All of Whitaker’s images are created in-camera, taking multiple exposures of a single sheet of large-format film. The meticulous approach requires extensive planning: Whitaker shoots through cut paper placed inside the 4x5 camera and masks parts of the film as she goes. “If you think of every hole or section of an image as being a separate screen you can start to imagine how complicated it can be,” Whitaker toldTime in 2016. “A single sheet of film can become several days of shooting.”

Whitaker’s images form delightful patterns, referencing the textiles of Anni Albers or the quilters of Gee’s Bend, and are often redolent of 1980s graphic design. She reveals striking silhouettes of arms, faces, legs, and breasts in works like Dimensions (2019) and Five Hands 2 (2017). The exacting nature of her work is belied by its playfulness, toying with the illusory nature of the photographic surface.

The Morrocan feminist artist Amina Benbouchta works in multiple disciplines and utilizes self-portraiture for her poetic photographic practice. Though she follows in the lineage of René Magritte, covering her face with seemingly random objects—in one image, Lost Paradise 01 (2013), she is surrounded by apples, a common item he used to obscure portraits in his paintings—her intentions differ from the Surrealist painter. While Magritte’s works were created with the intent of retaining mystery, Benbouchta’s images make a statement on the oppression of women in Arab countries.

The iconography she uses to relay this message includes bear traps, bird cages, and ladders, speaking to both confinement and the possibility of escape. She chooses settings including light-drenched interiors and lush outdoor gardens, examining figure and space. By obscuring her likeness, Benbouchta does not comment on her own personal history, but on collective sociocultural issues.

Karen Knorr
Immaculate Conception, Villa D’Este, 2015

In Karen Knorr’s work, animals inhabit lavish interiors: Indian palaces, Abu Dhabi mosques, and Italian villas. The German-born photographer, who was raised in Puerto Rico and is now based in London, examines privilege and wealth in her work, casting animals—shot separately in zoos and habitats—as the occupants of these architectural spaces. Two giraffes cross necks in the Palazzina Cinese in Palermo, while birds take flight through Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye.

In 2015, Knorr photographed The Lanesborough in London, one of the most expensive hotels in the world and a playground for the ultra-wealthy. In one of Knorr’s images, a doe wearing pearls eyes the camera while standing in a wedding reception hall with her fawns; in another, zebras cluster in the hotel’s foyer.

“The animals…puncture the attitude of the places,” Knorr told the New York Times in 2011. “They disturb and trouble the site. One thing I noticed in conceptual art, it could be so serious. I don’t want to be that serious, I want to make a picture that’s ambiguous.”

Lucia Fainzilber
Pomegranate - The Cookbook Series, 2019

Lush florals, colorful vegetables, and radiant textiles find harmony in the work of Argentinian photographer Lucia Fainzilber. In her self-portrait series “Somewear” (2014), she loosely camouflages her figure by coordinating fabrics with her surroundings to often-uncanny results. In her still-life series “The Cookbook” (2019), she echoes the colors and textures of petals or fruit in the tableware it sits on. The effect of her work is a mesmerizing assemblage that draws from her background as an art director, costume designer, and colorist. Fainzilber’s dreamlike still lifes and portraits balance fine art and editorial sensibilities.

Fainzilber began “Somewear” after leaving her home country and settling in New York, using the images to document a process of self-discovery. Her camera “served as a mirror for the emergence of my own sense of self, just like an infant whose perception develops the idea of the ‘I’ against the others,” she told Aint–Bad in 2017.

Viviane Sassen
Madra 02, 2018
Viviane Sassen
Ivy, 2010

For nearly two decades, Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen has created richly colored, mysterious bodies of work that make allusions to place and time without firmly placing them in any location or period. Her narratives feel at once both real and fictionalized, employing shadows and deep velvety hues to disorient space.

Sassen is directly inspired by Surrealist techniques, and employs photomontage—like Hannah Höch and Dora Maar before her—as well as collage. “Surrealism, to me, is the ability to experience or look at things in a way that’s unbiased, free of judgement and convention,” she toldDazed in 2018. “It’s also about being in touch with the parallel universes within us, and embracing the huge role that the subconscious plays in our identity.”

In her earlier series, including “Flamboya” (2004–08) and “Parasomnia” (2007–11), Sassen taps into the beauty of African countries and cultures, having lived in Kenya as a child. Her memories of her time there drove those bodies of work and continue to influence her practice.

More recently, Sassen has explored the body and femininity through “Of Mud and Lotus” and “Roxane II” (both 2017), as well as sensuality, wealth, and decay in “Venus & Mercury” (2020), which focuses on the figurative sculptures in the Palace of Versailles.

Jacqui Palumbo
Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.