A while back I wrote a blog post called “The Streets Are Surreal” in which I drew attention to the increasingly surreal qualities of contemporary street sculptures, advertising, and people’s dress and accessories.
Today I want to look at something else: at images which are only a little bit surreal. I want to think about those in which the contents seem very slightly “off.”
Off? I mean off-key, or out-of-the-ordinary, unusual in a hard-to-define way. After all, if you could define it in words you wouldn’t really need a photo at all. Street photography should, at the very least, say something which you can’t put into words.
In the end, I believe, it comes down to feeling. Surrealism is all about hard-to-define feelings. The surrealist image reaches down into the subconscious, awakening feelings that we don’t experience in the normal course of events. Salvador Dali’s drooping watches, for example, seem to be melting like wax, evoking memories of dreams in which time slows down or dissolves altogether.
The featured image above was sufficiently mystifying to prevent me from finding a title for it, so I called it “Opposite Skechers” for obvious reasons. Hopefully, the obviousness of the title runs counter to the content of the image.
I find the picture unusual in several ways, all of them exaggerated by the low viewpoint (I was standing at the bottom of some steps). The girl in the foreground is picking her way carefully, trying to avoid tumbling down the steps as she walks past the other pedestrians. Her knee-length shoulder bag is surreal in itself, but then, so are the huge, bright red headphones. This person has certainly accessorised herself into surreality.
There are other elements in the image that support the feeling, for example: the two women at either side, their eyeline coinciding with the horizontal Skechers sign. This, too, is unusual – but so are the almost touching noses of two men in the background and the bag which says “time waste” (part of a longer message with a different meaning).
Looking at the people taking short steps while others are pausing and scarcely moving at all, we feel that everything is in slow motion: not quite frozen in time as a photograph normally shows. In other words, the composition is slightly unstable, slightly “off,” slightly surreal.
Dancing on a Waste Bin
In the image immediately above, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood appears to be dancing on top of a waste bin. Of course, we soon notice that she’s just a cut-out figure, affixed to the Kurt Geiger window in the background and probably there to draw attention to her range of shoes and accessories. As the slogan says: “Everything But the Dress,” although the most striking thing about Westwood is (apart from pink hair) her dress.
I say “most striking,” but on reflection the most striking thing about the cutout (as opposed to Vivienne Westwood herself) is its size. It’s considerably larger than life, so it dwarfs the foreground figures even though it’s some distance behind them.
No, the woman near the bin is not wearing a backpack. That belongs to a passer-by, but I think the confusion adds to the slightly surreal feeling of the image. Meanwhile, a man draws his companion’s attention to something across the street. “Look! There’s some normality over there!”
In London, you can find both normality and abnormality everywhere. By any standards the Balloon Man (above) is somewhat out-of-the-ordinary. Street photographers and tourists alike can’t resist him, on account of his colourful appearance. I found him so striking that I waited until he walked in front of a plain background (there aren’t too many of those in Oxford Street, but this was one of them).
I think this is where the photographer’s intervention really counts. By taking the balloon seller out-of-context, away from tourists and their children, I’ve made him just a human figure, marching along an empty sidewalk in the middle of nowhere. He’s loaded up with a bundle of balloons which reminds me, slightly, of a rocket launcher: the army’s heavy artillery.
Naturally, I should NOT be reminded of military hardware by a man selling balloons to children, but I can’t get the idea out of my mind. Maybe it’s partly on account of all the metal and concrete in the image, not just the balloons, which are angled correctly for the first salvo.
Stopping Short of the Super Real
I could continue in this same vein, because so many of my pictures are slightly surreal. Sometimes I wonder whether people notice: whether they get the same feeling from them. Certainly it’s not obvious. If it were obvious then the photos would be bizarre (more Diane Arbus) rather than what I’m trying to achieve, which is to depict everyday reality in a slightly, ever-so-slightly, disturbing way.
As the poet T.S. Eliot said: “humankind can not bear very much reality.” When reality becomes too surreal (super real) we tend to freak out. That’s why I prefer merely to drop a few hints, here and there.