Surrealism is a classic technique we can use in our street photography.
To start, Henri Cartier-Bresson was The Godfather of Street photography, and most of our inspiration stems from him. His legacy penetrates all of photography, to the master photographers, magnum photographers, and almost all of us.
So in a sense, if you’re passionate about photography or street photography, you are a student, or deeply influenced by the imagery and philosophy of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
One interesting thing I learned about Henri Cartier-Bresson was his influence from surrealism. Henri Cartier-Bresson hung out with a lot of surrealists, and you can see how strong the impact of surrealism played out in his work.
I’ve also been studying the work of Magritte — and if you see the link between Henri Cartier-Besson and Magritte, and you see the imagery from street photographers — most street photographers are surrealists.
As surreal street photographers, we are playing with ordinary reality, and making it surreal. We are turning the ordinary into the extraordinary.
1. Overlap Technique
One technique Rene Magritte uses a lot in his painting is to overlap the faces of his paintings with objects.
We see the overlap technique used by Henri Cartier-Bresson:
Looking at other master photographers, who are all influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson, see these images.
For example, this picture by Joel Meyerowitz:
Or this picture by Lee Friedlander, who would make humorous self-portraits of himself by overlapping his face with objects.
Or this picture by Friedlander, with the light bulb on his face — symbolism of the light bulb as an idea!
I’ve seen all these images, and so like a good student, I’ve copied this technique in my photography, using these images as references to make my own photos.
Or another photo I shot in the grand central station, inspired by Joel Meyerowitz:
2. Floating bodies
I saw this painting by Magritte of the jockey on top of the car, which reminded me of the composition from Sergio Larrain:
To me, the secret of working this surrealist composition is having separation between the two elements, or having them overlap on the same plane. See this composition of Sergio Larrain deconstructed:
Therefore you can see the separation of two elements with a little bit of blue space works very well.
Assignment: Create a surreal street photography composition by stacking two elements or subjects on top of one another, with a little bit of separation in space, or by having them overlap.
3. Decapitation Technique
Another surrealist technique we can use in street photography is the “decapitation technique”— when we cut off the head of the subject. The reason why this works:
By not showing the head of the subject, or cutting it off, it looks like they are a surreal headless person.
Also by your subjects not having a head, it makes them seem more mysterious. It gives the viewer the opportunity to “fill in the blank” by trying to imagine what the person looks like.
A photographer who did the decapitation technique very well is Mark Cohen.
Therefore to try this technique, cut off the head of your subject, by not framing in their face.
4. Strange juxtapositions/scenes
You don’t always have to include people to make surreal street photos. Find strange scenes or juxtapositions that seem out of place, or other worldly.
The secret to being successful:
Make photos that suggest more questions than provides answers.
This will force the viewer to use their brain, to try to figure out what is going on. Therefore, your viewer will be much more engaged to analyze your photo, to understand.
5. Face silhouette
To also make surreal street photos, obscure the face of your subject by puttting their face in a silhouette. Do this by doing -1 or -2 exposure compensation with your camera, or have the light behind their head.
Or, use the “adjustment brush” in Lightroom, or darken (burn) their faces in Photoshop or any image post-processing tool.
6. No eyes
Or another idea: make a surreal street photo by not including their eyes, but show their face. This makes creepy and surreal photos:
7. One eye
Only show one eye, by using a flash, or by seeing interesting reflections on glasses.
Good example: Alexander Rodchenko portrait of man, with graphic reflection in one of his eyes:
Take your street photography to the next level:
8. Missing face
Cut out the faces of your subjects.
9. Head replacement
Or just replace their entire head with something else.
The reason why flash is a good surrealist Technique in Street photography: we don’t see the real world with a flash. Therefore by using a flash, you transform your picture to seem other-worldly.
Study morning surrealism
And remember in street photography, it is all about creating your own subjective view of reality. Not capturing “objective reality”.