Surrealist photography typically conjures up images of manipulated digital masterpieces. However, the surrealist form of photography has been around for quite a long time, beginning in the early 20th century.
The Cleveland Museum of Art now highlights these early but equally effective works in their new exhibition “Forbidden Games: Surrealist and Modernist Photography.”
These antique pictures all dating from the ‘20s and ‘40s have a charm of their own that no one can replicate, even with today’s modern technology. In fact, it’s shocking these traditional methods were able distort and mold reality to create such startling and mind-blowing effects.
Cleveland Museum of Art curator of photography Barbara Tannenbaum is excited about the new exhibit. “It’s a fun experience to have and teaches you a lot about the history of the period through the eyes of the people who were there. It enriches our understanding of the period to see it firsthand through some of these eyes,” she said. “There are so many surprises and names that may not be known to people, and it really expands your idea of photography.”
The methods to achieve the distinctive surreal feel varied from artist to artist. Some artists chose interesting subjects—an especially successful example of this in the exhibition is a photograph of a lobster claw that bears an uncanny resemblance to a smiling face.
Furthermore, photographers were also able to transform the mundane into truly spectacular creations, and they helped turn photography from something that was used almost exclusively for the purposes of documentary to a respected art form.
Others took photography beyond the camera and assembled intricate and meaningful collages. Another technique still was utilizing something called a photogram, which creates a distinctive negative shadow image.
Visitors have the opportunity to experiment with the photogram technique first-hand. In the midst of the exhibition hall, there is a small closet-like space filled with a variety of objects and a light-sensitive screen. These objects can be arranged and ordered to form a temporary photographic piece.
Additionally, the exhibition features two books and six short films, which are displayed throughout the hall. Depending on the film, the experience can range from hypnotizing to enthralling to almost brainwashing.
As viewers wander through the sharply angled pathways and rooms, they may find themselves hopelessly lost in a dreamlike journey through the psyches of 68 artists from 14 different countries in the Americas and Europe.
Tannenbaum explained that she “tried to make it a surreal experience to walk through the gallery.”
Instead of just arbitrarily ordering photographs, Tannenbaum wanted to make the artwork viewing more of an experience.
“There was a love of the irrational, sense of discovery and surprise in it. I really wanted it to be a playful and somewhat eccentric, unbalancing experience,” she said.
The exhibition hall is also filled with gigantic blown-up posters of some of the photos, which only adds a sense of déjà vu to the already anomalous experience. One of these gigantic posters is of an intently gazing eye coated with a material that appears to be a suspicious cross between hair and ink.
This photo seems to have become the iconic picture of the exhibition, and for good reason. Tannenbaum says that the photos in the exhibition express the “idea of surrealism of the eye in its wild state, with the eye untamed by convention, morality, art history training.”
The 167 photographs and illustrated books all come from the collection of one man, David Raymond, who started as a photo dealer and has been heavily involved in several artistic endeavors. He was so enthralled by surrealist photography that, when one of his clients opted out of that market, Raymond decided to spend his own money accumulating an extensive collection.
According to the CMA website, the Raymond collection of surrealist and modernist photography is “distinguished by [its] quality, breadth and rarity of subject matter” and is “one of the most important holdings of twentieth-century surrealist photography that remained in private hands.”
Viewing this undeniably impressive collection is free. It will be displayed at the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Exhibition Hall at the CMA from Oct. 19, 2014 to Jan. 11, 2015.