Having purpose, agency, and expressiveness will go a long way to creating a disorienting or unusual image. “I like to make things that seem impossible, but are clearly possible because you’re seeing me do it,” says photographer and designer John Spannos. “It comes down to meticulously planning out your shots and knowing exactly what pieces you’re going to need to build that final piece.”
This also applies to types of surrealist art that incorporate randomness. Practices like automatic writing or photomontage — with hastily chosen images — are pillars of surrealist practice, but they still incorporate a human element, in that they often purport to reflect the unconscious mind. “I’m using chance in my process, but also controlling it,” says Tryforos.
“It’s okay to break the rules,” says Spannos, “but you need to break the rules strategically. It can’t be on accident. Break the rules on purpose.”
Surrealism has always incorporated more photo editing than other genres. Photomontage and the juxtaposition of dissonant or disturbing images are hallmarks of surrealism, but even when creating fantastic images, the result still needs to look believable, if not realistic. “If you can see the edit,” says Spannos, “you didn’t spend enough time with the edit. Learn your software. Learn how Photoshop works and don’t be afraid of it.”
Editing errors can detract from the overall emotional impact that a surrealist image can have. A small slip can mean your viewer is focusing on something technical, rather than something emotional or impactful. “The viewer will know there’s something wrong, even if they don’t know what’s wrong,” says Spannos. When combining or altering photos, be mindful of shadows, light, color of light, and other factors. Make sure lights and light temperature match where they need to match. The better job you do on the technical side, the more your viewer will believe in the strangeness you create.
Breaking into surrealist photography.
Improving as a surrealist means drawing on your own reserves of weirdness, being comfortable with expressing your unconscious, and being a bit strange. But, like any other genre, it also rewards practice, study, and professional experience. “You’ll never get better if you think everything you do is already perfect,” says Spannos. “You need to be open to critique.”