American Surrealist Photography

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Apr 14–Jul 5, 1994


Frederick Sommer. <em>Valise d’Adam.</em> 1949. Gelatin silver print, 9 3/8 × 7 3/8ʺ (23.6 × 18.8 cm). Gift of the photographer

The unique and lasting influence of Surrealism on American photography is examined in American Surrealist Photography, which presents some forty-five works, including both photographs and periodicals, dating from 1930 to the mid-1950s and representing more than twenty artists. The exhibition, which is drawn from the Museum’s collection, reveals the ways in which American photographers turned the beliefs and techniques of Surrealism to their own uses, creating a range of personal, highly expressive works.

The works in American Surrealist Photography demonstrate the rich exchange between European and American artists; these included Americans who traveled to Europe and brought Surrealist ideas and techniques back with them, and, more importantly, Europeans who emigrated to the United States during the 1930s, as they fled the rise of Fascism. This exchange is shown in the exhibition through publications in which European and American Surrealist work was commingled, including Charles Henri Ford’s View and VVV, edited by the artist David Hare.

American photographers such as Clarence John Laughlin and Frederick Sommer appropriated Surrealist motifs and techniques that made familiar subjects seem strange and that expressed a spirit of the ineffable. In pictures such as Valise d’Adam (1940), Sommer used found objects to create unconventional and disquieting collages that often had deformation and decay as their theme.

The effects of Surrealism on the work of Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, and others primarily took the form of an openness to the uncanny to be found in everyday life. In Levitt’s New York (c. 1945), for example, a woman leans into a baby carriage, appearing to lose her head, while the child laughs frantically.

Photographers such as Minor White and Aaron Siskind borrowed the premises of Surrealist automatism in their attempts to make photographs that embodied their unconscious impulses. By becoming open and almost meditative in their looking, these artists discovered abstract shapes and personal symbolism in ordinary objects and in common landscapes. In White’s Celibate (1958), a frosted window becomes a shadowy figure; in Siskind’s Chicago, Corrugated Surface (1953), a decaying surface is transformed into an evocative abstraction.

Sheryl Conkelton writes, “Surrealism injected a new energy into image-making; its incorporation into American photography was complex, and, while the ideas have long since moved beyond their Surrealist bounds, the consciousness of a photograph as an invention of experience continues to inspire photographers.”

From the wall card in the exhibition

This exhibition, drawn from the Museum’s collection, explores Surrealism’s impact on photography in America. A literary and artistic movement, Surrealism was formulated in France in the mid-1920s in response to the moral crisis that followed the “Great War.” Surrealism’s leaders—André Breton, Louis Aragon, and others—proclaimed a comprehensive revolution in thinking that would disrupt conventional ideas and behavior. The movement’s central tenet was the liberation of the unconscious from all strictures; this was manifested in the visual arts by overly theatrical mises-en-scène and in the manipulation and fragmentation of figures, the use of collage and montage, and the depiction of objects in unexpected contexts or strange juxtapositions.

In America, Surrealism was absorbed in an atmosphere of lively exchange among various literary cliques, artistic groups, avant-garde filmmakers, and émigrés who had fled the rise of fascism in Europe. New magazines, such as View, edited by Charles Henri Ford, and VVV, edited by David Hare, established important forums for Surrealist works and ideas. American Surrealist works were features in exhibitions in a number of venues, including, in New York, The Museum of Modern Art and the Julien Levy Gallery. Many photographers documented Surrealist constructions or collaborated with other artists. For example, Horst B. Horst photographed a costume by Salvador Dalí, Frederick Sommer portrayed his friend Max Ernst, and Val Telberg illustrated a book by Anaïs Nin.

Surrealist motifs and formal strategies were very quickly appropriated by American photographers. The human body became a site for a range of explorations and provided a vehicle for expressions of anxiety about the self and the world. George Platt Lynes used Surrealism’s theatrical effects to explore the expressive possibilities of male bodies in frankly artificial but mysterious tableaux. Sommer and Clarence John Laughlin employed collage and montage techniques to assemble irrational human forms. Many photographers used synthetic darkroom techniques to explore identity and personality. Lynes, Sommer, Louis Faurer, and Maya Deren made complex portraits with montaged elements. Other exploited the printing process to make images that appear to explode or fragment the body, or even, as in the pictures of David Hare, to melt it.

Surrealist ideas also inspired photographers who firmly anchored their art in the experience of seeing. Walker Evans photographed advertising posters to draw attention to the deformation of the figures depicted in them. John Gutmann and Helen Levitt explored the streets with their cameras, receptive to the readymade theater and spectacle the city provided. In ordinary objects and landscapes, Aaron Siskind and Minor White found abstract shapes that hinted at meanings beyond the obvious. Berenice Abbott and Irving Penn discovered that still objects could appear animated—for example, when juxtaposed with other objects.

Surrealism injected a new, provocative energy into American photography. Its emphasis on the disruption of complacency provided artists with a vigorous means of expressing their individual response to a world undergoing rapid political and technological changes.

Sheryl Conkelton, Associate Curator
Department of Photography

Organized by Sheryl Conkelton, associate curator, Department of Photography.


Installation images

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