John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Explanations of Surreal Photographs

(return to the article "Surreal Photography")

surreal photo

The Substance of Shadows

Shadows are the substance of the unconscious mind. They point to hidden and mysterious things. In this image the shadows reveal the forms of people in bold contrast, while also hiding their details in blackness. Surreal imagery often relies on such feelings of paradox, mystery, and ambiguity.

surreal photography

Dreamy Blur

When blur rules an image, elements of the scene lose their individuality. Their boundaries overlap. They blend into each other, as if reality itself has turned fluid. Dreams often possess this liquidy sensation. Many types of surreal imagery defy the rigid dichotomy between one thing and another.

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Intensified light and dark

Hard contrast drives home the feeling of starkness, as if things have been stripped down to their essence that exists beyond reality as we know it. The elements of the scene become rich in distinctiveness, texture and emotional intensity. When a scene enters this realm of hyper-realism, it turns surreal. In this beach shot of man dragging a cart across the sand, the high contrast effect creates the feeling of a dramatic mythical story.

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A fusion of realities

Compositing one shot into another often leads to a surreal image, as if separate realities have become embedded into each other to create an intertwined, imaginary world. In this image the enhanced texture, as well as the emotions stirred by the woman's intense stare, add to the mysteriously surreal impression.

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When colors defy

In our everyday life we become very used to objects possessing certain colored and not others. Any severe violation of that norm creates surrealism. In this shot the rainbows inside the glasses suggest imaginary cupfuls of pure color.

surreal photography

Reflected Realities

Similar to composited images, reflection shots create the illusion of separate worlds infused into each other. The liquidy quality of water reflections adds to the surreal feeling by blurring the elements of the scene into reality-defying shapes. The image feels dream-like. In this shot, my saturating and altering the colors intensifies the overall surreal effect.

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Composited beings

Even ordinary objects become surreal when you add puzzling and contradictory elements to them, which takes them out of normal world and into the imaginary realm of strange hybrid creatures. This composited image that I constructed in Photoshop was based on my daughter’s dream about an imaginary creature with the fur of a hamster, the feathers of a parrot, the head of an anteater, and the legs of a spider. The image merges not just the visual aspects of these four animals, but also the qualities we associate with these critters.

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When we lose our sense of orientation - of where we have been, where we are, and where we are going - we enter a timeless, dimensionless space of surrealism. In this inverted shot of my legs up against a wall, up and down become arbitrary directions. The washed out treatment also adds to the feeling of floating without rhyme or reason.

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Why that there?

Just as puzzling composites result in surreal looking entities, a puzzling placement of a subject into a scene casts doubts on reason and conventionality. In this surreal space, we must decipher what is happening and why. Might there be a reason why a clown holding a duck in a graveyard is taking a photo of us? The answer to this question is elusive.


Books about surreal photography:

Bowker surreal photography
Surreal Photography: Creating the Impossible, by Daniela Bowker

Because extreme close-up shots result in abstract images that look surreal, books about surreal photography tend to focus on macro-photography. However, some books explore other methods as well, such as this one by Bowker. She describes techniques for creating surreal images during the taking of the shot as well as in post-processing.
huggins surreal photography

Surreal Digital Photography, by Barry Huggins

This book by Huggins explores the creation of surreal images during post-processing in Photoshop, either by compositing images or by color and tonal enhancements. The book endorses the philosophy that imagination, experimentation, and playfulness are the key elements of being a surreal photographer.


Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche