Surrealism in Street Photography

Surrealism is a classic technique we can use in our street photography.

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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

Rene Magritte, son of man.

One technique Rene Magritte uses a lot in his painting is to overlap the faces of his paintings with objects.

Man in bowler hat by Rene Magritte. Note how the face is obscured by the dove.

We see the overlap technique used by Henri Cartier-Bresson:

Henri Cartier Bresson, the knot overlapped with the head of the man.

Looking at other master photographers, who are all influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson, see these images.

For example, this picture by Joel Meyerowitz:

Woman at ticket booth, with head overlapped by Joel Meyerowitz

Or this picture by Lee Friedlander, who would make humorous self-portraits of himself by overlapping his face with objects.

Self portrait of Lee Friedlander with trophy on his face in reflection of glass.

Or this picture by Friedlander, with the light bulb on his face — symbolism of the light bulb as an idea!

Self portrait of Lee Friedlander with light bulb.

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.

Red dot overlapped with man in suit. London tube, by Eric Kim

Or another photo I shot in the grand central station, inspired by Joel Meyerowitz:

Man in grand central station ticket counter. Photo by ERIC KIM

2. Floating bodies

Magritte jockey painting. Note how it looks like the jockey is on top of the car.

I saw this painting by Magritte of the jockey on top of the car, which reminded me of the composition from Sergio Larrain:

Sergio Larrain, surreal photo with girl on top of dog

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:

To me the key to this composition is the little blue space in between the dog and the girl.

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

Man with red tape. Venice, 2013. Leica MP + Leica Summicron 35mm f2 ASPH + Kodak Portra 400. 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.

Paris, 2015. Decapitation Technique

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.

Surreal street photo by Mark Cohen. Bubble gum and hand.

A photographer who did the decapitation technique very well is Mark Cohen.

Surreal photo by Mark Cohen: headless girl jumping rope
Headless horseman by Mark Cohen

Therefore to try this technique, cut off the head of your subject, by not framing in their face.

4. Strange juxtapositions/scenes

Surreal picture: orange cone behind the universe By ERIC KIM

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.

Surreal street photo: why is there a security camera in the desert? Photo by ERIC KIM

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.

Surreal street photo by ERIC KIM: What is going on? Is there a head inside the bag?

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.

Suit silhouette walking. Tokyo, 2016

Or, use the “adjustment brush” in Lightroom, or darken (burn) their faces in Photoshop or any image post-processing tool.

Silhouette suit man. Street photograph in Tokyo, 2011

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:

Low perspective. Man with black eyes, Tokyo 2016
Red shirt and green background. Low perspective shot. New Orleans, woman and deer. Shot at -1 exposure compensation on RICOH GR II
Suit without eyes. Surreal.

7. One eye

Copyright: Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos /SPAIN. Valencia. 1933. Inside the sliding doors of the bullfight arena. Surreal because the right eye of the man is all white. As if he only had one eye.

Only show one eye, by using a flash, or by seeing interesting reflections on glasses.

Leica MP + Leica Summicron 35mm f2 ASPH + Kodak Portra 400 + flash in Paris subway. Note the flash reflection in his glasses.

Good example: Alexander Rodchenko portrait of man, with graphic reflection in one of his eyes:

The Critic, Osip Brik, 1924. Alexander Rodchenko Photo

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8. Missing face

Nashville, 2013. Faces cut out.

Cut out the faces of your subjects.

9. Head replacement

Suit head replaced with flowers

Or just replace their entire head with something else.

Woman with vent on head. Kyoto, 2017. Reflection of flash against metal. Head replacement

10. Flash

Flash. Berlin, 2017

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.

Smoke with flash. The smoke adds to the mood.

Study morning surrealism

For surrealism, Study the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mark Cohen, and Magritte.

And remember in street photography, it is all about creating your own subjective view of reality. Not capturing “objective reality”.