Category Archives: 1 Colour and modernity

Exercise p66 – Surrealism and colour documentary

This exercise calls for a portfolio of five images in a surrealist style on a topic that interests you. Because I have difficulty in understanding exactly what surrealism in photography is, I couldn’t chose a topic to which I could devote five images. Most of the so called surreal images I have seen from my research seem to be at the best bizarre, at the least quirky and in some cases humorous. I’m hoping that you will comment and provoke a discussion to help me clarify this. We were asked to look at Peter Dench’s work before starting this exercise. I chose to respond to the unusual as I visited the island of Tenerife recently.  Here are my images:







Project–Colour and modernity

It’s strange but I’ve looked at what I can find of Eggleston’s work and with the perspective of time, it doesn’t seem that strange next to other later work by photographers influenced by him. I tried casting my mind back to what colour photography was like in the seventies. Most of what I was familiar with was editorial, art was definitely black and white. So with the MoMA exhibition, John Szarkowski propelled William Eggleston and colour art photography into the big galleries.

I though this quote from Eggleston was worth recording;

“I only  ever take one picture of one thing. Literally. Never two. So then that picture is taken and the next one is waiting somewhere else…. I don’t really worry if it works out or not.”

I can’t say that I understand Eggleston’s work. It is bold, colourful and generally inexplicable. Then I watched this YouTube video and an insight into the character of the man  made things a little clearer:

A subtle colour documentary

Seeing and Believing – Max Houghton – I read this with interest and broadly agree (within limits of my experience) with the points made. It occurs to me that the skills of photojournalism/reportage require far a more refined set of communication skills that most other types of documentary photography.

Eight Ways to Change the World

I found identifying individual bodies of work a bit of a trial as they appeared to be mixed up and scrolling back and forth trying to identify each photographer was tedious. I tried to avoid having to print it out but in the end I printed out the work of Dieter Telemans and Adam Hinton just so that I could look closely at their  conceptual and visual style.

Dieter Telemans presented seven photographs which showed women in Africa performing the most basic of all tasks; collecting water. The series has a loose, informal style, it is optimistic in nature and shows how despite the drudgery and hard physicality  of the task, the water is clean and is being managed properly. The information provided in the captions is about the water as a resource with only a couple of women named.

Adam Hinton’s piece was about  the failure of Guatemala to reach the Millennium Development Goal of  gender parity in education (one of 70 countries). He has chosen to do this with small family groups of generations of women. The individuals are named (in all but one case) and the information given in the captions details of a range of experiences across the generations, from prejudice against educating women to positive experiences of second and third generations being encouraged into the classroom. The groups are posed and look directly into the camera, connecting with the viewer, telling their stories. The poor living standards are obvious from the settings of the images.

Surrealism and colour documentary

Here is a page about Hara’s Vanitas:

Carl de Keyser has produced some other  work with surreal elements. As well as the Zona series, Moments Before the Flood and Congo (Belge) colour work were worth looking at.

I looked at a lot of Peter Dench’s work . Having done that I had to redefine what I think of as surreal and whether his images are surreal, bizarre or just plain quirky.                                                                                                                                  Surreal: a situation or experience that is surreal is very strange, like something from a dream… Longman dictionary of contemporary English. 

Having looked at Alcohol & England, The British Abroad and England Uncensored , by the end I found it difficult to find anything surreal about the images, humorous, yes, bizarre definitely. Could it be that this genre has reached saturation point? To qualify as surreal an element in a image should be unexpected, take me totally by surprise and make me think; even be totally inexplicable. I like Dench’s work, he is an acute observer and uses colour well. He has summed up the nation, not in the most flattering way perhaps, but we can after all laugh at ourselves.

I think it is a sad reflection that we are bombarded with images of ourselves at our worst, simply as a result of social media and the “anything goes” culture.  Consequently, what was once  surreal has become the commonplace, bizarre and quirky.

I found that de Keyser’s Moments Before the Flood contained a lot more surreal elements than Dench’s work. These are links to images that I felt use colour or unusual juxtapositions to reinforce a dream-like or strange notion.

Further searches of the internet for surreal colour images in documentary photography weren’t very fruitful. My perception of what is surreal seems to be at odds with what is described. I shall continue to search and will add my portfolio of “surreal” images to this blog when the portfolio is completed.