Surrealism – a photographic dreamscape

Photography played a pivotal role in surrealism becoming an art movement. Equally, surrealism returned the favour by giving the photograph a place in the art world. We have to look all the way back to the 1920s to see where it all started. At first glance, surrealistic imagery could be chaotic, dreamy, and absolutely mad, but it also came with a clear political message. The imagery was meant to portray a superior reality of the subconscious and acted as a tidal wave crashing against the sterile ‘everyday’ leading up to World War II. Being such a strong visual language, the art form has continued to inspire creatives ever since, so we wanted to have a look into surrealism today and how it’s used in stock photography.

Surreal portrait of two women faceless with her face masks
ValentinaPhotosGraphic / Alamy Stock Photo

Thinking of where to find surrealism in our everyday, recent TV shows such as Stranger Things and The Handmaid’s Tale are the first things that come to my mind. Both of them are grounded in the real world turned upside down in different ways, one by the supernatural and one by an extremist revolution. Stranger Things is set in the 80s in a fictional suburban town called Hawkins. Through the lives of four twelve year old boys we discover a parallel universe with monstrous creatures and a girl with super powers. What makes this show so easy to digest (and almost believe in), is the highly detailed realistic setting. The 80s aesthetics makes you buy into it even more as you’re constantly being reminded of small details that used to be a part of your world (at least if you are my age…), but no longer are. This invasion of the familiar setting is called Magic Realism, and the rise of this in TV is said to be a reflection of societies’ increased frustration with our current reality.

Surreal and artistic portrait about the concept of future
Sol Vazquez / Alamy Stock Photo

What fascinates me the most about The Handmaid’s Tale (apart from Margaret Atwood’s chilling storyline) is the cinematography. Set aside the striking use of light and colour, have you noticed how every single shot is perfectly composed? The main attraction of the scene is often found right in the centre of the frame, and everything else is equally segmented to the left and right. Each frame is so well balanced that it has an uncomfortable and inorganic effect, giving this world a surreal and artificial feel.

These fictional worlds aren’t only taking place on the screen, artists from around the world are all jumping on the chance to use the stories and their aesthetics in their own artworks. If you watched the shows, have a look at these incredible illustrations from The Handmaid’s Tale and Stranger Things and see how the surrealist expression unfolds on paper.

Antique photo of man with surreal flower eyes.
Gina Easley / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo

Surrealist art doesn’t have to be extreme. As soon as you hear the word, you might think of Dali’s absurd landscapes with melted clocks scattered around, but if you look at the works of Man Ray, one of the most prominent photographers contributing to the surrealist movement, it’s the subtle hints of the unordinary that places him into this category. Simple touches of distortion, unpredictable juxtapositions, and removal of purpose are effects that form this visual language and both fashion designers and photographers continuously make use of the same effects to expand their creative expression.

Elegant beautiful nude woman with perfect sexy body. Naked elegant lady pose in studio. Art photography of nude sexy woman.
George Mayer / Alamy Stock Photo

Hats shaped like shoes, gloves with fingernails and shoes with displaced heals can be both beautiful and creepy at the same time. We look at it and might feel an intriguing repulsion towards the object. Disgusted or fascinated, it doesn’t really matter, the uncanny object has broken the norm and asked you to rethink normality.  

A bass fish with rosebush thorns and lemon in a flower plate hidden on a vibrant pink background. Game and diversion. Minimal color still life photogr
Loulouvonglup / Alamy Stock Photo

Surrealism is widely used in stock photography too. Clients love experimenting with this hyper-creative expression and it fits well with book cover designs, ad campaigns and design briefs.

Our top tips for incorporating surrealism into your stock photography is to not overdo it, less is definitely more in this area. As mentioned above, elements of familiarity might be needed for the images to have commercial value. Copy space is another important factor to think about, and most of all don’t be afraid to try and fail!