The Surrealist movement in art predates street photography by only a few years. Yet back in the 1920s when it first got going, there would have been little chance of finding suitable subjects on the street. How the world has changed!
Walking down a city street in the early twenty-first century you could easily come across three giant fried eggs on which it’s possible to jump up and down. Or you can crouch in a large crumpled coffee cup, or admire a disembodied bronze hand taller than yourself.
Quite apart from all the deliberately surrealist modern sculptures, the cities’ inhabitants contribute surrealism of their own with multi-coloured hairstyles, lurid tattoos, piercings, and elaborate accessories.
In European cities we retain many of the old, classical buildings, against which the weirdly-presented passers-by seem even more surreal. A man with a high-viz jacket and a blue Mohican haircut, leaning against a white Doric column, is a ready-made street photo.
In fact, there are so many oddly dressed and outrageously coiffured people walking past the Georgian architecture of London that I don’t photograph them unless there’s a compelling reason for doing so. All I can offer for my featured image (above) is a scene from Bangkok: of a giant bottle of Kikkoman sauce with a scantily-clad girl standing in front of it.
The Mind of Freud
Surrealism sprang from the imagination of artists, inspired by the psychological explorations of Sigmund Freud into the subconscious mind. There was a tinge of Romanticism in the way it challenged rationality, introducing illogical elements into the picture, made all the more impossible by being depicted with the utmost realism.
From the outset, photography was a useful tool because it reproduced objects with great exactitude — much faster than Salvador Dali could paint a melting clock face. However, anyone wishing to make surreal photographs was obliged to create the scene, using ingenious sets with strange perspectives and incongruous figures.
Man Ray, the American-born artist who often used photography as his primary tool, became a master of the unexpected juxtaposition which delighted the eye while (slightly) disturbing the mind.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, the pioneer of street photography, was strongly influenced by Surrealism — even though his work never became as overtly surrealist as Man Ray’s. In Paris he mixed with the Surrealists who gathered at the Café Cyrano in the Place Blanche and absorbed their ideas. In particular he was struck by the emphasis they placed on spontaneity and the subconscious.
On the streets in the 1930s and 1940s, Cartier-Bresson didn’t find the bizarre mixture of surrealist people, objects and artworks we have today, but he succeeded in taking images which have a surrealist edge. He found ambiguities, juxtapositions and gestures that communicate meaning where you least expect it.
Because of Cartier-Bresson’s continued influence, street photography has always been at least slightly surrealistic. It’s what sets it apart from photojournalism. A street photograph tries to capture the attention of onlookers by drawing the eye towards something remarkable, then rewarding it with other qualities such as great composition, vivid detail, or even emotional content.
I’m quite shameless in using advertising hoardings, street sculptures and promotional events to bring surrealism to my images. Here, for example, is an outlet for mango desserts in Bangkok, topped with an Austrian-style feathered hat. (That’s on the outlet, not on the dessert).
If I could have shown this image to the artists and photographers in the Café Cyrano in the 1920s I think they’d have been very impressed. Would Cartier-Bresson have guessed that the two girls were taking a “selfie”? With a phone-on-a-stick? Probably not.
Gigantism Always Works
When you photograph the human figure, expand it to enormous size and place it on a poster — or create a three-dimensional model from it — you’ve surely entered the world of surrealism. Such works have the effect of dwarfing those on the street, while possibly inflating people’s sense of importance as they identify with the man or woman in the poster.
Highly realistic images of martial arts champions occupy a vast hoarding outside a gym in Hong Kong, their belt buckles alone being the height of a man. Walking past, I found a cluster of people huddled beneath them, probably placing bets. If I showed you the whole of the poster you wouldn’t see the people very clearly, so I cropped the image to leave just the “thumbs up” and the fighter’s medals. The long-fingered hand, on the left, seems particularly surreal — until you realise it’s pushing against a pane of glass, causing the fingers to splay.
Personally I prefer surrealism to be more subtle, dropping little hints of incomprehensibility here and there.
Pottinger Street in Hong Kong is one of the best-known photogenic hot-spots (Kai Wong, formerly of Digital Rev, goes there from time to time). The hairdresser’s notice board changes frequently. When I was there it said “Stay, Gold, Pony, Boy” which presumably means something to somebody. And, oh yes, the railings are covered in knitting.
That’s really how I like my surrealism. You can keep your burning giraffes and “honey sweeter than blood.” For me it’s “Stay, Gold, Pony, Boy” and knit me a jumper for the Bank of China. It can get quite chilly in Hong Kong.