John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Surreal Photography

If we let go of the idea that photography realistically portrays reality, we begin exploring a very different psychological, philosophical, and artistic territory: surreal photography. These types of photos have been described in a variety of ways: unusual, unreal, idiosyncratic, illogical, irrational, weird, dream-like, hallucinatory, surprising, startling, disorienting, upsetting, disturbing, and anarchistic. They tamper with the boundary between reality and fantasy, showing us things that are impossible in everyday life. They draw on a vivid imagination that leads to interpretations of the world extending beyond our usual perceptions of it. As suggested by the Latin root “sur,” it is a reality over, above, and more than our familiar reality.

Surrealism in the art world became popular in the early 1920s as an expression of a revolutionary philosophy. It aimed to free people from rigid rationality and restrictive habits in politics, religion, and social behavior. Surrealists, who sometimes allied themselves with radical political movements, wanted to liberate the mind by unshackling the imagination. If we release our thoughts from civilized standards, they claimed, we arrive at truths we had never known before. Unfettered by reason, outside of conventional aesthetic and moral rules, the play of fantasy arrives at new solutions to the problems of life. The compelling surreal image injects a shock to one’s psychic system, thereby revealing hidden emotional, psychological, and spiritual insights. This artistic style sometimes depicted the alienation people felt in the modern world, while attempting to point the way deep into the psyche to reveal one’s individuality.

In addition to drawing on ideas from Hegel and Marx, surrealism also allied itself with Freud. As a psychologist, I’d like to focus on this particular partnership. In its heyday during that period of time, psychoanalytic theory turned our attention to the mysterious world of the unconscious. Similar to analysts who used free association and dreams to explore this realm, so too artists and photographers employed them as tools for creating surrealistic images.

Primary Process Thinking

To appreciate how the unconscious works, we need to understand the psychoanalytic distinction between secondary and primary process thinking. Secondary process rests on reason, rationality, practicality, and logic. It’s the mechanism of the conscious mind. We learn it as we grow up, through traditional forms of education along with the need to adapt to a social world.

On the other hand, primary process thinking is our inborn, idiosyncratic, and more fundamental mode of experiencing the world, mostly relegated to the unconscious as we grow into civilized adult beings. It does continue to surface during our dreams, which is why Freud considered them to be the “royal road” to the unconscious mind. The characteristics of primary process thinking are as follows:

- It is primitive and primal

- It entails intense emotions, instincts, and experiences

- It defies reality, dwelling more on illogical, unusual, and bizarre imagery

- It entails distortions and even transcendence of time and space

- It is highly symbolic, richly imagistic, and sensation-oriented

- It relies on unusual associations between ideas and images

- It allows the experience of the physical and psychological self to be stretched, distorted, and merged with other things and other people

- It focuses on the experience of the self and one’s internal world

Features of Surreal Images

There are a wide variety of surreal images, ranging from subtle to bizarre. The various characteristics of primary process thinking listed above contribute to these different types of surrealistic photography. In some cases, it is the content of the image that pushes it into the surreal realm. In other cases, it is the visual style. Sophisticated shooting, compositional, and post-processing techniques can lead to complex surreal images by incorporating a variety of primary process qualities. The more elements of primary process present in the image, the more surreal it will be. However, in some cases a straightforward and simple approach, based on one or two elements of primary process, might best capture the primitive and intense qualities of this unconscious mode of thinking.


Unless one has uncorrected bad eyesight, the real world looks relatively clear and focused to the normal mind. We therefore associate blur with unusual modes of perception, as in fainting, falling asleep, moving rapidly, and being disoriented, dizzy or drunk. During such altered states of consciousness, we see the world quite differently. It doesn’t appear solid, stationary, and real as it usually does. People, objects, and spaces lose their boundaries as they blend into each other. Reality appears shimmering, liquefied, and translucent. We feel like we’re slipping, flowing, and gliding in and out of different forms and locations. Time itself becomes fluid as people and things appear in several places at the same instant, as if we’re looking at different moments presented to us at the same time.

Photographers create these surrealistic blur effects using a variety of techniques: by spinning, shaking, panning, and racking the camera lens; by slowing down shutter speed; by opening apertures wide to create shallow depth of field and bubbly bokeh; and by all sorts of blur filters in an image editing program, as in the star-shaped blur effect for the shot of the man with the colorful backpack.

Intense sharpness, detail, and contrast

In this age of high definition images, some TVs don’t look real, at least not to me. The intense sharpness, details, and contrasts push a souped-up reality into our eyeballs. Modern animation and CGI produce the same effect. It’s as if we have hyper-vision, like an eagle or an extremely sensitive Star Trek sensor. It’s similar to the intensely sensual “perceptual feast” that people experience during LSD trips. So too in the post-processing of photographs, we can boost sharpness, details, and contrasts past the normal range and into surreal territories. In the beach shot on the right, the stark contrasts surrealistically reinforce the arduous task of the man pulling his cart.

High dynamic range images (HDR) are another good example. I wouldn’t necessarily describe such photos as “dream-like” in the usual sense, but they do take us into the rich intensity of experience that is characteristic of primary process. They defy reality as we know it, catapulting us into an exaggerated sur-reality.

Intensified and unusual texture

Increased sharpness, detail, and contrast also heighten texture in a photograph. Here I mention texture as a separate feature of surreal images due to the unique impact it has on us. Texture means “touch.” Even just the visual experience of it stimulates tactile sensations on our skin as well as kinesthetic sensations in our muscles - along with all the feelings we associate with these sensations. Texture pumped up beyond the normal range of vision can therefore trigger the primal emotions, instincts, and experiences of the very body-oriented primary process. During post-processing, we can also add texture overlays to an image, creating such surreal effects as reptile human skin and canvas skies. In the portrait of the woman, the pebble texture overlay seems to hide her face from our sight, while also blending into her skin and highlighting our focus on her eyes.

Intensified and unusual color

The things of this world have somewhat specific ranges of hue and color saturation. Grass isn’t purple and human skin isn’t bright orange. That’s just the way reality is. However, in the post-processing of a photograph, reality poses no restrictions on us. By magnifying and altering colors, we can expand the scope of emotional and symbolic expression that colors offer us, as in the unreal but flavorful colors of the four glasses on the right. Digging deep into primary process, we create a world of hues and color saturation that reflect our personal subjective reality, rather than the objective one.

Composites and blendings

In photography we can build a composite of images either by multiple exposures, layering images on top of each other in an image editing program, or shots into reflective surfaces like water, glass, mirrors, and metal. By doing so we create a surreal distorting and merging of spaces, scenes, objects, people, and time frames, as in the photo of colorful branches over a lake reflection of trees, the sky, and a house. We present not just one reality, but several blended into each other. This is how the unconscious works. For example, dreams as well as memories of past events often are not an accurate objective record of something that happened, but rather an unconscious subjective merging of elements from different memories, what Freud called “screen” memories.”

On the right is a composite image I constructed in Photoshop based on my daughter’s dream about an imaginary creature with the fur of a hamster, the feathers of a parrot, the head of an anteater, and the legs of a spider. The image merges not just the visual aspects of these four animals, but also the qualities we associate with these critters.

Frozen movement

Both philosophers and scientists tell us that things are always changing. By it’s very nature, reality embodies flux and transition. Not so in a fast shutter speed photograph. In a very surreal way, even the most rapid blink-of-an-eye motion can be frozen in time, like the beautifully complex crown of a droplet falling into water, or a girl with long flowing hair magically suspended in space as she leaps from her bed. These images amaze us precisely because they seem surreal. A fleeting instant has been plucked from the high speeds of normal reality and mounted into eternity, enabling us to enter that timeless realm where we can examine every minute detail of this otherwise nearly invisible event. Psychoanalytic theory tells us that primary process thinking does not know time, that a memory from long ago remains fresh in the unconscious as if it just happened, as if it IS happening. So too high shutter speed photography surrealistically transcends temporal reality.

Perceptual distortions and illusions

Cameras can alter reality by how photographers use them, or by how they intrinsically function in terms of optics. For example, very wide angle lens result in strange distortions of space. Like Dali’s clock melting onto a tree branch, buildings can be made to surrealistically bend under the pressure of some unseen force. Similar to the painter Magritte who stuffed a huge apple inside a small room, photographers can also play on perceptual illusions to make us question the dimensions of reality. When the feet of a person in the distance rest on the shoulder of a person in the foreground, that person looks like a human miniature perched atop his companion. In a style resembling Escher, shots from carefully chosen perspectives can surrealistically confuse us about what direction is up, down, back, and forward. In some cases the perspective of the scene might seem physically or logically impossible, as in the dreamlike shot of the two legs jutting down towards what seems to be a wall or ceiling.

Strange juxtapositions

Surrealism in the world of art often took the form of placing seemingly unrelated things together in an illogical or startling way, suggesting some kind of hidden connection between them, as in Magritte sticking a leafy green apple onto a conservative looking man’s face. According to surrealistic philosophy, the more dissimilar the combined things seem to be at first glance, the more emotionally powerful and symbolic the underlying connection between them. Such relationships created via seemingly random “free association” is exactly how unconscious primary process thinking works, as evident in the often strange collection of people, things, scenes, and actions in a dream. “This reminds me of this, which reminds me of that...”

The same surreal effects can easily be created via photography, either by establishing unusual juxtapositions during the shoot, which is the preferred method for those who want to remain true to traditional photography - or by using image editing programs to insert things into an image for the purpose of creating strangely symbolic combinations. For the image of the clown in a cemetery, which many people find rather disturbing, the juxtaposition seems bizarre, unless we consider possible interpretations of combining happy and sad – for example, how people need humor even and perhaps especially during dire times.

Primitive content

Surreal images sometimes convey primitive emotions, instincts, and behaviors, including scenes of sexual and/or aggressive content. The basic emotions of anger, fear, disgust, surprise, sadness, happiness, love, and contempt – as well as variations or unusual combinations of them - appear as common themes. The blatancy of these images might surprise, shock, disgust, and even provoke anxiety in viewers. As Freud told us, the part of the unconscious mind called the “libido” thinks in selfish, uncivilized, and drive-determined ways.

Only particular people may create or show an appreciation for the more extreme forms of such primary process images. In other cases these types of surreal images aren’t necessary “primitive,” but they are nevertheless intense or strange in their depiction of archetypal emotions and instincts, as in the image of the ram-man on the right.

Regression in Service of the Ego

Ernst Kris’s concept of “regression in service of the ego” – also known as “adaptive regression” – serves well to explain all types of creativity, and especially surrealism. This concept suggests that creative works arise from a two-step process: an inspiration stage and an elaboration stage.

During the inspiration stage, a person’s mind temporarily regresses to unconscious primary process thinking in order to obtain an insight into some artistic (or scientific) issue that the conventional restraints of the conscious mind cannot resolve. Logic and rationality are momentarily suspended in search of a novel idea. This primary process insight might appear in a dream, meditation, and other altered states of consciousness, or it might surface spontaneously into the normal awake mind after a period of “subconscious incubation,” when the person is no longer consciously attempting to work on the artistic issue, or may in fact have given up on getting any new insight. Even though the conscious mind has let go of the artistic process, the unconscious mind, operating in the background, continues to explore it and then suddenly serves up the new idea.

Coming from primary process thinking, the insight obtained during the inspiration “AHA!” stage is often raw and primitive. During the elaboration phase, the artist must figure out, in terms of technical skill, how to actually create the image. In the case of the photography, a big question is whether the artist can create the fully realized image during the shoot, in a photo-editing program, or by combining both.

In addition, the highly subjective, personal, and sometimes bizarre insight from the inspiration stage might need to be tamed so that it makes sense to other people. Artists must make a conscious effort to refine the idea in order to incorporate it effectively into their artistic work. Otherwise, if people are left scratching their heads, if they don’t “get it” or react only neagtively to the primitive and irrational imagery, the artistic work falls short of communicating anything meaningful to others.

Here a delicate balance emerges. Viewers might feel a sense of surprise, mystery and excitement as they search for the meaning of the startling and seemingly unintelligible image; or, if the photo hasn’t been tamed enough, they might just feel confused, frustrated, outraged, or indifferent. This is the danger of surreal photography. Is the photographer a genius, or just some crazy person showing us an uninterpretable image with no rhythm or reason. Psychotic people, in fact, do immerse themselves into the world of primary process, but they lack the conscious elaboration skills to present what they experience in a way that others can understand. They just don’t make any sane sense. As Dali once said, "There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad."

The Personality of the Surrealistic Photographer

Some of the personality traits of creative people reflect this ability to tap primary process during a regression in service of the ego. These characteristics might be especially important among photographers and other artists who create surreal images. They have a thin boundary between different realms of experience, such as work and play, dream life and waking life, and the conscious and unconscious realms of their minds. They are open to and enjoy new experiences, including reveries, fantasy, hypnosis, meditation, and other altered states of conscious, chemically or naturally induced. Having the ability to “let go,” they do not fear a loss of control, which frees them from conscious rational restraints in pursuit of primary process insights. They appreciate play, exploration, mystery, ambiguity, and complexity. As independent thinkers, they do not feel the need to conform to rules, authority, or even to their own traditions. They understand the power of “un-knowing” in breaking the rigid mental sets that build obstacles to new connections and insights.

In cases of people with extreme abilities to immerse themselves into the world of primary process, they need to develop internal dangers signals to warn them when they are going so far into the unconscious that they might not be able to return to their normal, rational mind.

Surreal to Whom?

A problem in defining surreal photography is precisely this question: surreal to whom? For example, some people claim that surreal photography differs from abstract photography, which typically involves extreme close-ups that remove things from their overall context and meaning. I personally find such pictures to be quite surreal in how they tamper with logic, rationality, and the boundary between the world as we know it and the world of fantasy. Thinking of abstract photos as glimpses into the strangely minute aspects of reality, we might say that they are “sub-real” rather than “sur-real,” although the overall effect is the same.

In this modern age when fantastic digital images of many shapes and sizes bombard us all day long, we have become quite used to illogical, irrational, weird, dream-like, and hallucinatory scenes – some of us more so than others. Surreal images have lost a bit of their power to surprise, disorient, and shock us. For this reason, some photographers (as well as movie directors) feel they must push the envelope as far as possible in creating bizarre, primitive images – not necessarily to explore new territory in surrealistic symbolism and meanings, but just to get a reaction from viewers. Such images may not be illustrating any significant or meaningful idea at all. The photographer created it just to get a reaction, or just for the rebellious sake of “taking it to the limit” and beyond.

We could say that identifying a surrealistic image rests on an answer to this simple question: could this scene exist in reality? However, what’s interesting about these modern times is our acceptance of the idea - as postulated by philosophers, writers, mystics, and even modern physicists – that what we see out there in the normal world isn’t necessarily reality, or, perhaps more accurately, that there are other realities, other dimensions of truth. When we accept lens perspective distortions, digitally manipulated colors, souped-up textures, visually merged spaces, and strange juxtapositions as meaningful depictions of the world, we accept unconscious primary process as a valid experience, maybe even as a more compelling truth than our everyday perceptions.

Sometime the surreal is more real than the real.

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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche