What is Surrealist Photography? With Mike Martin

What is Surrealist Photography?

Surrealist Photography: What is it?


Mike Martin (EFIAP, AWPF, BPE1), Fotospeed ambassador and photographer, explains what surrealism photography is and how it influences his own work.

What does surrealism photography mean?

Surrealism photography is often characterised as “a cultural movement in which artists depicted unnerving, illogical scenes and developed techniques to allow the unconscious mind to express itself”. Common characteristics often include dream-like scenes and symbolic images, unexpected or illogical juxtapositions, bizarre assemblages of ordinary objects, visual puns, distorted figures and biomorphic shapes. Several names come to mind when discussing Surrealism; Dali, Picasso, Magritte, Escher, Miro.

How does surrealism influence photography?

Surrealism influences my work on a subconscious level. For instance, recent work of mine pays homage to Rene Magritte’s bowler hatted chap. Seeing the clouds, I asked my model to hold the umbrella upside down to give it a surreal feel, then in post, removed his head. As the clouds built up, that offered other opportunities, building to the third image.


Surrealism photography often sees everyday objects used in different ways, in my case I used a snorkel. Once I’d taken the image of my model wearing it, I was always going to make the clouds funnel into it, which creates an image that subverts reality and deviates from expectations.

Rain Man

I continued to build on the idea of using the snorkel, filling it up with fish for my next image. They were a bit subtle, so I added the rest of the fish swimming around him – I enjoyed the futility of having an umbrella whilst under water. The fish came from an aquarium somewhere – I often ‘collect’ stuff in case it may come in useful someday, which can be very useful for surrealist photography.

Raining Fish


Swapping to Escher, and his frequent use of optical illusions, I love this stairway at Margam Castle, Port Talbot. It even influenced the title.

I like pushing boundaries. I use Photoshop almost like a tool for brainstorming ideas. Traditionally, brainstorming dictates that there are no ‘bad ideas’, and encourages putting out anything that pops into your mind. I’ve been doing the same using a combination of Photoshop and some on-line tools. 

I know it is easy to dismiss some of these images as being more about the ‘tool’ or ‘technique’ but I disagree; the photographer still has to decide which elements to repeat, how to distort, and when to stop. Look at the following as an example; here I’ve taken a portrait, isolated just the hands, repeated them to create a ‘basket’ of interlocking hands and then added back the original Avant Garde portrait from which the hands were taken.

Escher's Bride   Untitled

Returning to the same shot, focussing on the face only, repeating those in ever reducing size can produce something that I see as a metaphor for getting inside someone’s head, hence the title(s).

Seeing with the mind (or Empty Headed)

Surrealism photography is all about pushing the boundaries and creating images that subvert expectations of reality. Inspiration can come from anywhere, but just requires outward, creative and out-the-box thinking.

Whatever or wherever you get your inspiration, keep creating and keep printing. 

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You can read more about Mike and his work here.