Black and white and Surrealism

B&W and Surrealism

In looking at surrealism it is interesting to seek out its origins as a genre of work that attempted not only to express itself through photography but also painting and poetry.

Sontag alluded quite strongly to the idea that photography was the most successful candidate in exploring the ‘terrain’ of surrealist art: It is photography that has best shown how to juxtapose the sewing machine and the umbrella… (Sontag, 1977:53) [1]

The early surrealist photographers were naturally working in black and white as this was still the modus operandi of any serious photographer. The likes of Man Ray, John Heartfeld, Lazlo Maholy-Nagy and others come to mind, producing works in the form of solorized images, fotograms and montages such as those produces by Hearfeld in the forties. On the whole the rise of surrealism appears to have had its roots in the bourgeois middle classes revealing that the origins sit within a privileged class that had time and resources to be observing others in their terrain. In the end, Sontag argues, each photographer becomes a tourist in the lives of others and eventually, their own (Sontag, 1977) [2]. The allusions to the flânuer once again revels itself in this statement, the ‘stroller’, the voyeur and the street photographer all take in the atmosphere we could say, of the lives of others in an ongoing process of observation and evaluation. 

The photos of Graciela Iturbides

Graciela Iturbides, 'The cemetery' (1979-88)Graciela Iturbides, ‘The cemetery’ (1979-88) [3]

Iturbides was a female Mexican photographer who studied under Manuel Alvarez Bravo as an assistant and met Cartier Bresson in Europe in 1978. Tina Modotti (1896) was an important influence on the work of Iturbides (herself working in the documentary genre) began her work in Mexico. Modotti, not only had the talent for photography but was also a political activist and actress (Famous photographers: [4]

The idea that surrealism explores a ‘fundamental irrationslism’ perks my curiosity as in a sense this can provide us with perhaps a more evocative way of exploring our ‘reality’ than so called straight objective documentary styles. Perhaps it is a more accurate way to explore the ‘human condition’ given that I would suggest much of our experience and life would seem to be driven by irrational forces. In the case of Modotti, she was indeed exploring these forces that still seem alive and acknowledged within her own culture. As in other parts of the world, these types of rituals and ceremonies still exist as a fundamental part of human experience.

At the end of the first world war in Europe there were many disaffected artists which drove the beginnings of a new way of presenting art.  A loss of confidence in the old values and a sense of the need to perhaps, begin again, produced the start of the Avant-garde movement. This gave rise to non-figurative images invoking abstract concepts: time, space, human feelings etc. (Hacking, 2012) [5]

As is stated by Hacking, photography was placed in a central role to advance the Avant-guard movement. Sontag has already stated a similar sentiment, telling us that one of the more respected and effective mediums for the presentation of the surreal had been photography. In particular as a part of the new envisioning of the creative, we see the rise of the surrealist manifesto by Breton, which I discuss in another blog.


  1. Sontag, S. On Photography (1977) Penguin Publication
  2. Sontag, S. On Photography (1977) Penguin Publications
  3. Image:  Iturbides, G. The cemetery (1979-88) [online] [accessed, February 2020]
  4. Famous photographers (Tina Modatti) [online]  [accessed, February 2020]
  5. Hacking, J. Photography, the whole story (2012) Thames and Hudson

Published by Truevisionphotography

I'm a student photographer studying through the OCA a UK based arts university. I'm in the foundation year of my studies and enjoying it immensely. I'm also a yoga teacher and co-founder of Bodhiyoga a buddhism based yoga teacher training program that runs in the UK and Spain each year. As a photographer I'm interested in all forms of fine art. I find the arts really important in my life. I love nature and aim to be in the outdoors as much as I can. Generally I think that all the different strands of my life are flowing to towards self development in the greatest sense of the term. The arts, buddhist practice yoga and meditation are all tools to that end. I feel committed to communication the these values in the world both through the visual arts as well as teaching.

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