A hundred years after the art movement was born, surrealism is making a comeback. In 2019, for example, the market for paintings by René Magritte saw a record auction turnover of more than $108 million, with shows at SFMOMA and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium following soon after. This year, surrealist styles returned to the fashion runway as well, with today’s designers drawing inspiration from 1920s pioneers like Elsa Schiaparelli.
Of course, surrealism and photography share a rich and complex history. Early surrealist photography, as with all art that emerged during the surrealist movement of the 1920s onward, drew inspiration from dreams and the unconscious mind. Some artists brought imaginary scenes to life through photomontage and collage, while others employed alternative processes like solarization, with the latter likely discovered by Lee Miller, a prominent surrealist.
Still more, like Man Ray, used photo-sensitive paper and everyday household objects to create abstract, mind-bending compositions. Claude Cahun explored the notion of identity through performative self-portraits, taking on the role of a doll or a dandy. Today, surrealist photography exists in many forms: the composite or montage is still a popular choice, while double exposures can also explore the idea of the uncanny.
In many ways, it makes sense that we’re experiencing a return to the surreal. Surrealism was first created in the wake of the First World War, a time of uncertainty and upheaval. It seems appropriate then, that in the wake of a global pandemic, artists have again turned to a world of fantasy—not just as a means of escape from reality but also as a way of visualizing the strangeness of everyday life in 2021. Here are 12 photographers to follow on 500px for surrealist inspiration.
Oleg Oprisco captures elaborate, dreamlike scenes on medium-format film. He creates these real-world tableaux himself using meticulous propping, styling, and location scouting. He finds some props at flea markets and builds others himself.
Some take days to perfect; to create the burning umbrella, for instance, he had to experiment with various materials, so it was safe for the model. His photographs challenge our understanding of what’s real and what’s simply a carefully crafted illusion, often playing with scale to confound the eye and delight the mind.
Karen Khachaturov has created an uncanny parallel world—a universe that’s been described more than once as a “pastel dystopia.” The inhabitants of this realm appear to be part human, part something else, often with their faces obscured by masks.
Using his signature color palette, Karen merges the playful and the unnerving, touching on a larger sense of alienation engendered by our current digital era. Their surroundings might be sugary sweet, but his characters seem lost and lonely, consumed by the monotonous routine of everyday life.
The self-portrait artist Laura Zalenga follows in a long line of surrealists with a fascination for the human form, creating images that challenge ideas of beauty, perfection, gender, and identity. She draws inspiration from everything from fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm to the work of Claude Cahun.
A recurring motif in her work comes in the form of trees; the artist is a passionate advocate for the natural world, raising awareness about climate change and animal exploitation.
We also included Adeolu Osibodu in our list of 10 fine art photographers to follow on 500px, where we touched briefly on the near-death experience that transformed the way he understood the world around him. Looking back now, he says the accident even shifted his perception of time, causing the past and present to collide in surprising ways.
Today, he creates superimposed portraits where his face (or the faces of friends) appears again and again, seemingly fragmenting the psyche into many different characters. The idea of fading or lost memories, the unconscious, and dream states have also become recurring themes in his work.
Patty Maher’s uncanny portraits of women are often set in natural landscapes, some real and others imagined. Their faces unseen and unknown, her characters convey their state of mind through gesture and posture, while their stories remain a mystery. The theme of isolation versus togetherness runs throughout her body of work, as the women in her pictures merge together and pull apart.
Recently, she’s been combining photography, collage, and painting to create a world entirely of her own, while also harkening back to the original surrealists and their experimental sensibility.
Anka Zhuravleva spent much of her childhood pouring through her mother’s art books and experimenting with her drawing materials, fostering a lifelong love of the arts. Today, she has a closet full of dresses sourced from flea markets and vintage shops; some she made herself.
She also works with all sorts of materials, including analog processes such as lith printing—a mysterious technique involving the use of black and white photo paper and lithographic developer.
Erik Johansson seamlessly combines multiple photographs to create parallel worlds, constructing visual paradoxes in the process. His work, involving the creation of many original photographs to make a single, seemingly impossible image, can be painstaking. He sometimes builds scale models, and on one recent occasion, he even incorporated a purpose-built house for his model (see below).
Some pictures require hundreds of shots, taken all over the world. He continues to draw inspiration from his childhood on a farm in Sweden, with motifs like red houses and pristine landscapes recurring throughout his oeuvre.
Felicia Simion’s work spans genres, running from documentary to surrealism. In recent years, she’s merged photography and performance, documenting herself as she interacts with landscapes around the world, from Chile and Bolivia to the French seaside resort of Deauville. For these performances, she’s donned full-body costumes, covering herself from head to toe and transforming into an anonymous shadow figure.
The idea of home has become a throughline in her work, as she navigates feelings of belonging and alienation during her travels to new and unusual places. She cites Magritte as one of her inspirations.
A master in color theory, Sergey Fett uses eye-catching visuals to explore notions relating to the conscious and unconscious mind and the power of imagination. Many of his pictures take months to bring to life, requiring careful research, sketches, and planning. He does the post-production himself and will sometimes manipulate details to elevate the surreal quality of the work.
His images often feature faceless people, perhaps in some ways evoking the shrouded faces of the painter René Magritte. Like the famous painter, Sergey also challenges our understanding of identity, seeming to say that as hard as we try, we can never truly know ourselves. “Just like the sky and clouds are reflected in the water, reality is reflected in the image,” he once wrote. “It is like looking through a dim glass in a closed room at a world you only suspect exists.”
500px Ambassador Jovana Rikalo is a fine art and portrait photographer with a taste for the fantastical and dreamlike. Inspired by the natural world, she creates elaborate folklore and fairytale-inspired tableaux, resplendent with pastel colors. From the tulips fields of the Netherlands to an ethereal pink lake in the small village of Pa?ir, she’s consistently drawn to real-world places that feel supernatural.
The conceptual photographer Milos Nejezchleb oversees every aspect of production on his shoots, from styling to location scouting to post-production. His pictures, while deceptively minimal, contain layers of meaning, often with references to current events and societal undercurrents. His goal: to stop people scrolling and inspire us to reflect.
500px Ambassador Julia Wimmerlin is best-known for her travel and animal photography, but her work often veers into the surreal. Sometimes, the location itself is otherworldly, as was the case in Dead Sea, where she found an expanse of vibrant turquoise water. In her conceptual work, she reimagines the human body through the use of mirrors or shadows, stretching or fragmenting familiar shapes beyond recognition.
A recent series of self-portraits reminds us of some of the famous pictures Lee Miller made with Man Ray, elongating and distorting her neck, bringing us back to the origins of surrealist photography. Her effects are done in-camera.
Check out our Conceptual Delights Quest if this style of photography is your thing!