To start with the question 'what is a surrealist photograph?' might be taken to presuppose that such a thing simply exists and that this chapter sets out to explain, or at least identify, its characteristics! But what is it that defines a 'surrealist' picture? Is it when an image is used within surrealism, or is it in the property of a particular type of image regardless of historical surrealism? Invariably the common assumption is the latter: a surrealist image is a particular sort of picture that is 'recognized' as simply being 'surreal', as a particular type of picture. A consequence of this assumption in the study of surrealism is to disregard other types of photograph within Surrealism, the ones that do not fit a 'surreal' category. In contrast to this thinking, I want to ask what relations between surrealism and photography are established within historical surrealism. What needs to be raised is the issue of whether such a category as'surrealist photograph'has any coherence at all? In this respect, perhaps a better way to put the question is: when is a photograph surrealist? This at least has the virtue of not immediately assuming that any photograph used in surrealism is 'surrealist' and less easily allows a general distinction between surrealism and photography (as different fields ot practice) to be elided. It also throws up the challenge of making distinctions about what types of photographs are used, how they figure and what uses they are put to within surrealism. Since assumptions about the answers to these questions already precede any argument made here, I will immediately state my case.
I propose that what people name as 'surreal' should be described as a type of meaning, not a type of
picture. The surreal is, semiotically speaking, a signifying effect, the confusion or a contradiction in conventional signifier—signified relations in representations and where a meaning is partially hidden, where the message appears 'enigmatic' regardless of how (or in what technological form)2
it has been produced.The concept of an enigmatic
message within signification processes is borrowed from its use in psychoanalytic theory by Jean Laplanche. He clarifies the meaning of an enigma by comparison with the 'riddle':
In short, the author of an
enigmatic message is not fully aware of the signification involved in a message they have Sent. I want to use this concept for discussion of the analysis of surrealist images in surrealism.4
But first, there is a need to be able to assess and describe the different types of photograph used within surrealism.
It is quite clear when looking at photographs used in surrealist periodicals, exhibitions and books that the image types are heterogeneous, diverse and mixed: various ordinary and experimental photographs made by surrealists, anonymous found images, postcards, scientific pictures, newspaper cuttings, film stills, portraits and so on. Obviously, in terms of examining a surreal effect, such sociological categories are useless, since they do not describe their use within surrealism. What is required to address the relations of these various types of photograph within surrealism is a framework that acknowledges the differences, but which specifies the attributes and characteristics of their functions and use (including what it is that constitutes a 'surreal' photograph) in terms of their production of'surrealist' meanings. I propose three categories (i.e. types of signifier) of distinction relevant for such a discussion of photographic signifying functions:
1. Mimetic; 2. Prophotographic; 3. Enigmatic. Such distinctions are, of course, provisional and subject to revision. They are in no way meant as a 'new' ontology of the photographic image, despite any neologisms. There are images — and critics — likely to test such categorical distinctions. Despite the possibility of 'deconstructing' them by attending to the 'fringe' areas, with images that might fall across or between them, I will nevertheless maintain them in a provisional working hypothesis, so long as they have a general validity and use. A brief description will help elucidate what is intended by their scope and sense.
By a mimetic photograph is meant the totally conventional, 'normal' use of photographs, as an 'illustrative' representation. In mimesis a photographic sign serves as a mimetic reproduction of the referent (the thing depicted or referred to), which is held to be 'reproduced' photographically.This signifying 'naturalism' sees not the picture but only the thing depicted, ignoring the techniques of mediation, perspective, geometry, chemistry, lighting, etc. Within or outside surrealism such mimetic photographs are commonly used to 'reproduce'paintings, people or places where to all intents and purposes, the photograph remains invisible, ideologically 'transparent'. A typical example in surrealism is the top photograph on the front cover of La Révolution surréaliste,
no. I (December 1924) by Man Ray (see Figure 1
). The group of surrealists (the referent) in this picture (the signifler)
are shown as gathered together as in a conventional group portrait of 'the surrealists' (the signified meaning) and the picture (sign) mimics a believable scene (the referent). This is despite the fact that we know from the semiotie study of photographic images that this type of (signifier + signified =) sign, as a 'copy' of the thing represented, is nevertheless produced through a Complex coding of the image.5
Roland Barthes is right when he complains in Camera Luada
that people generally fail to distinguish a photograph 'from its referent (from what it represents)'.6
The photograph, presumed to be essentially 'indexical' as a recording device, an imprint of light on chemicals spread across a base support (film or paper), remains the dominant ontological definition of photography. We readily and easily conflate the picture with the thing represented — the illusion
of photographic realism. Although the photograph is commonly defined semiotically as indexical, it is nevertheless wrong to confuse the mimetic verisimilitude of 'realism' with
indexicality. Photographic realism of the sort we encounter daily in various types of photographs is predominantly iconic. Indexicality means that a sign is caused by its referent, whereas an iconic sign has relation of resemblance, as in 'copying' the referent (mimesis) in the sense of its appearance.7
(An iconic image is a sign that is analogous to aspects of an object [referent] in relation to its appearance in conventional perceptive codes of vision.) Thus visual mimesis is a form of iconic logic caught up in a play of resemblance within the field of perspectival vision more than it is indexical. So, just to make the difference clear, a photogram, for example (an image produced in a darkroom by putting objects into the beam of light directed at photographic paper), is certainly an indexical trace of the objects used to create the shapes in the image,but there is no automatic guarantee of'realism', in that the image produced does not necessarily re-present the objects used to make the image. We need only consider those playful visual illusions in which shadow puppeteers, using their hands in a beam of light, simulate the (iconic) shadow images of various birds, animals or caricatures of individuals. In such images the picturesign conjured up (bird, animal etc.) has no necessary
meaningful relation to the human hands (referent), which produced them. Indeed, this conjuring up of an image in shadow puppetry is precisely the same structure (if not the same level of sophistication) as the 'magic'which pervades the photographic illusion of reality.