Structuring Surrealist Photography: 

the surrealist viewer or the maker’s false subconscious 

A process of exploration and experimentation in the dark room of the surrealist photographer is related to chance, shadows, and exposures. Krauss describes surrealist photography as unformed through “complex reconstructions, made in the dark, of an original object, chosen in the dark from among many others.” The dark room and its process is then related also to the dark, subconscious and unknown parts of the artist/maker. But, is it about making in the dark or about the illogical/subconscious making? If both are the same thing then what is the illogical thing about the dark making? If surrealism is, as Krauss says, “The creation of suggestive imagery through the operations of chance,” what is the limit of chance images? What could be made subconsciously while operating through chance? Is it about the surrealist viewer’s eye instead of the hand of the maker, the viewer’s subconscious not the maker’s subconscious? “...or is it to imagine?” / “Angle of vision” / “This process of seeing as if...” These are the questions of surrealist photography at their core.

In surrealist photography, the eye of the viewer is the main tool which provides the surreal experience of or for the art-work. I don’t think surrealism is dependent so much, as thought or expected on the subconscious of the maker. I think the techniques of surrealism are quite logical, not as subconscious as historically argued, relying more on the punctum and the surrealist viewer’s eye. In this essay I will call this false reliance on the subconscious of the maker the “false subconscious.” I will clarify how the techniques of surrealism per Rosalind Krauss’s essay Corpus Delicti, in their specificity, validate my argument. How can there be such tight and methodical forms for surrealism, an identifiable language or code for something so amorphous and unknowable as the subconscious? We will end with a discussion of chance operations, one of the major techniques of surrealism, through the works of Broomberg & Chanarin which indicates the false use of the subconscious in surrealism.

It’s interesting to observe this logical process made by surrealist pioneers framing their publication about surrealism. A movement that was fighting for approaching a subconscious way of thinking and treating the world. Rosalind Krauss explains how “Man Ray was treated as a kind of staff photographer” for the magazine, La Revolution Surrealiste. Even from the inception of surrealist photography, how can there be a production, something so clear and precise, organized and commodifiable as a magazine, and worst, a staff photographer for the subconscious material of the surrealists? How do you “select” photographs to “electrify the text” in such a publication? How do you “electrify the text” by a simple rotation, closeup and consequent disorientation of the body as an “Unformed” / ”formless field”? This unformed and formlessness of surrealist photography leads to other modes of making such as chance and accident.

Through a logical process by the staff photographer Man Ray made a mistake/accident that led later to invent a new logical technique used to implement illogical ideas. Krauss states, “Rayographs were actually first made by accident in the darkroom.” Photogram/Rayograph is placing and manipulating objects on pieces of photographic/photosensitive paper before it is exposed to the light, “exposing the shadow”. Adding a silvery, ghostly quality to the image, solarization/sabattier effect technique leads to the viewer’s experience which “will later read as a kind of optical corrosion”. Another technique is doubling as a schism, which also emphasizes the viewer’s experience. This technique “the fundamental schism between the subject that perceives and the image that looks back at him, because that image, in which he is captured, is seen from the vantage of another.”

More than these techniques, chance operation is supposed to result in an accident, unknown to the maker or the viewer. Automatism and the mistakes or accidental occurrence produced is another form of chance operation. “The creation of suggestive imagery through the operations of chance,” is the optimal effect on the viewer. But, is the result really an accident? Is that effect really unexpected? What could be made subconsciously while operating chance? Or is it about the surrealist viewer/eye? The very logical, technique and associative aspects utilized in the construction of surrealist text, such as Man Ray’s techniques, “the staff photographer,” function in a cohesive order, a codified system of exchanges, expectations and outcomes which seem to me to be a far cry from the automatic, chance and subconscious workings of surrealism. This process of selection and publication making is quite ordinary, not surreal at all. Chance operation falls into question as a fallacy just like the supposed use of unknown, dark or subconscious techniques. I elucidate the contradictory nature of surrealist photography techniques to emphasize the viewer’s experience. I believe the viewer’s references, the prior knowledge of the viewer, is crucial for understanding surrealist work. It is my ambition here to tear down the false idol or magical hold of the surrealist potential in art.

My suspicion, then, is that the surrealist do not use the subconscious, rather they are fully conscious in all stages of making. The artist might not know the exact result of their experimentation but they have an idea or an expected outcome. This contradiction is crucial. Chance relies on the machine, the viewer, and outside forces. The process of developing a photograph and accidents occurring after the maker selects what will be in the frame are the chance operation, not the act of photographing something. The objects selected by the artist for the rayograph are not as random as they would appear. The only thing that is actually left to chance is the effect of the image on the viewer. The political and social life or atmosphere of the work becomes part of the effect of the art on the viewer. The prior knowledge the viewer brings to the art affects the way they receive the work. The convergence of these two unpredictable and different priori produces the unexpected or surreal result in the viewer.

The work by contemporary archival artists Broomberg & Chanarin serves as an example of a process operating by chance. Broomberg & Chanarin opened a chance space or online website, ( an online gallery for people to share their own material and content about/from the Egyptian surrealists. Their website served as a repository for research, a call for content and space for sharing their observations and gathered history. This project used chance and accidents to provide a surreal result which shows life’s complexity. One such surreal or unexpected convergence is that the revolution or Arab Spring started in Egypt just a few months after this project of finding and archiving materials from/about the Art and Liberty Group or JFH (“Jama’at al-Fan wal-Hurria” or “ج ف ح”) began. “JFH is just one of a vast array of currents of radical libertarian thought in the Arab world (and elsewhere) whose stories have been violently suppressed by the forces of industrial capitalism and bourgeois liberal democracy that are now largely lost to history,” (LaCoss 2009). Historical or contemporary events provides the surrealist element here, not the content or creation/creators.

Another surreal outcome for their website/archive project was in moment of copying a rare VHS copy of the 1945 social realist lm called Al-Souq al-Souda’ or “Black Market” directed and written by the Egyptian filmmaker Kamel El-Telmissany after he gave up being a surrealist artist. The film shows surrealism and post-surrealist influences in revolutionary liberal art in Egypt, but the surreal moment on the viewer, in this case the artist as viewer/collector resulted when they were not able to transfer the whole film from the VHS for a gallery screening after they discovered that there was porn copied onto the VHS in 70s. Surrealism and pornography are similar: You cannot say what it is but you understand it when you see it.

One of the goals of Broomberg & Chanarin’s project was to examine contemporary issues of nationalism and censorship and how those encounter to contemporary art in Egypt. In Cairo they reproduced and distributed posters that contain sentences written by the JFH group. Eventually, all posters were removed by the state. But, it’s interesting to see which sentences/posters lasted in the streets and which didn’t. “Bread and Freedom” was the first removed by the police. This unexpected reveal might not be surreal but it is definitely a chance operation, again relying on the expectation and prior knowledge of the artist. 

Furthermore, the Egyptian surrealists’ faulty dependence on the French roots of surrealism correlates to the failure of the Egyptian surrealists to gain traction or momentum outside of Europe. Baghdad poet, Abdel Kader El-Janabi, born in 1944 and founder of the first surrealist Arabic review, Le Désir Libertaire, which was banned in the Arab world, writes: 

I am thereby less concerned with the Egyptian contribution to surrealism than with their failure to realise an effective stance of modernity in Egypt; a failure which would lead them to turn against what they wanted to effect, and would lead them to criticize their marxist-surrealist past, and to move from collective to individual action. (Abdel Kader El-Janabi 1987)

The failure of translating European surrealism to the Egyptian context echoes the falsity of the French reliance on the subconscious. Before leaving the Surrealist movement in Egypt, the Egyptian JFH group founder Kamel El-Telmissany wrote in In 1939: “Surrealism is not a “specifically French movement” as the professor said, rather it is a movement that is primarily defined by the globalism of its thinking and its actions... Have you seen the Egyptian Museum?... Much of pharaonic art is surrealist. Have you seen the Coptic Museum?. . . Much of Coptic art is surrealist.” Trying to frame Egyptian art and history in the context of a Eurocentric art practice is one failure, but the failure of surrealism to meet its universalist goals of tackling or expressing the human subconscious is another all together. The roots of this failure hinges on the believed use of the subconscious by the surrealists, the false subconscious, of course, would not translate to Egypt.

– Co-authored by Jose Luis Benavides and Qais Assali. Feb 28, 2018

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