Tom Keighley and Susan Sontag.

“Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision.

To my knowledge it was Susan Sontag who first pushed the idea that photography as a medium is absolutely surreal.

“What renders a photograph surreal is is its irrefutable pathos as a message from time passed” 

The fact that photography itself is surreal, implies that no photograph is entirely un-surreal. Furthermore, if one creates a surrealist photograph, they are playing to the tune of the mediums characteristics, and going along with its strengths. If we consider surrealist painting, it revokes the strengths of its mother medium, to create its own nature. Hence, the photograph that is attempting to be the least surrealist, is the one that becomes the most surreal, as it is attempting to work in a way that does not sit comfortably with the medium as a whole.

As we continue to read “Melancholy Objects” statements such as:-

“a body clad in filthy rags is not more surreal than a principessa dressed for a ball, or a pristine nude.”

become more frequent, and it is these that make believe that I am correcting in saying that when extremes – or peculiarities – are photographed, they are adhering to the nature of photography, and therefore are easily digested by the viewer. The junction is smooth. There is no difficulty in digestion.

Things we consider “the norm” are, in fact, the most surreal. Although it would not surprise me if this hypothesis is true of many, or even all, factions of the human experience, we will focus on photography and the arts today, as Sontag did in her writings. 

I want to introduce the work of artist and friend Tom Keighley. I know for a fact that Tom is particularly drawn to the writing of Susan Sontag, as well as the New Topographic aesthetic, embodied by the artwork of Bernd and Hilla Becher, or that of Robert Adams. 

I have chosen Keighley’s work, as it is an excellent example of the photographed ordinary, making us do strange things. How does surreal mundaneness manifest itself today, with the immense rise of digital technology? In a time where almost everyone could consider themselves a photographer, artist, or graphic designer, is the truth in this theory’s being increased or decreased? This is the question we will strive to answer.

Personally, I would question the idea that the ownership of a camera, makes someone a photographer. I would even go as far as saying that some of the most influential photographers today do not own, or employ, a camera. However, I will try not to be drawn into that debate and viewpoint. Instead let’s focus on the work of Kieghley. 

My favourite thing about Tom’s flattened view of the world, is that he encourages us to examine elements that – in more confused imagery – are overlooked. Whether these small intrigues, and visual relationships, have genuine significance, or are self-generated by the viewer as they seek importance where there isn’t any, I am not quite sure. But what is certain is that the increased manipulation of the viewer, making them look at things they wouldn’t ordinarily, and think about those said things in ways they normally wouldn’t, is what makes these images surreal. The overwhelming amount of bizarre, manipulated, grotesque imagery in the world today means we almost expect to see those images, and we certainly are not shocked by it. As the extremes are continuously pushed and normalised, they do not manipulate the viewer. Oppositely, the initiation of eerie atmosphere, and expectation of significance, does. 

This is further enhanced by the general belief that every photograph is important. The belief that everything needs to be photographed, to make it significant, and that nothing can be particularly important if it is not photographed, is fuelling the idea that every photograph was taken with the intent to document something “important”. When we enter into the boundaries of the photograph with this subconscious belief, and it is not satisfied, we feel things foreign to us. The realisation that the photograph does not guarantee importance makes no sense. One either has this realisation, or self-generates importance to satisfy themselves. Either way, it is now that the junction – mentioned earlier – becomes turbulent. The provocation of new feelings, and thus the difficulty of digestion, is what makes Kieghley’s work surreal. Furthermore, it is the lack of the norm being photographed today, that makes it the most unique, difficult, and surreal artwork. 

One example of un-surreal surrealism I have seen several times is “Babel” by Cildo Meireles, installed in the Tate Modern, London. I am not sure if the artist believes this to be surrealist work, but I am sure many would consider it so.

The tower of babbling radios may to many seem very unusual when you walk in and become bathed in blue aurora. However, I felt that it was very easy to ask “what is this work about?” and “what was the inspiration?” or “what is the meaning behind this work?” when in the presence of the tower. Moreover, these questions are easily answered by the artist, those who writes on the Tate website. This suggests that we have a smooth junction into understanding the work.

Babel 2001 Cildo Meireles born 1948 Purchased jointly by Tate, London (with the assistance of the Latin American Acquisitions Committee) and the D.Daskalopoulos Collection, 2013, as a promised gift to Tate

Comparatively Keighley himself struggles to articulate his work, suggesting we either are searching for importance not there, or the junction is less easily navigated. 

Of course “Babel” introduces us to new information. I did not previously know the biblical story of “The Tower of Babel” nor the ideas it embodies. But I am not taken into new waters emotionally. I am not pushed into places I had not been previously. I sit and write in anger that I cannot articulate what is missing in works like “Babel” that are present in the photography of Tom Keighley. I guess if I could articulate absolutely, Keighley’s work would be not be surreal. The best I can do is say that “Babel” is very effable. It is not difficult to ease into comfortable conversation about “surrealist” artwork, due to the increasing saturation of artwork like it, particularly photographs.

Let us finish off by considering the question posed earlier – In a time where almost everyone could consider themselves a photographer, artist, or graphic designer, is it true that peculiarities are increasingly expected, and the norm is truely surreal? Our breakdown has certainly shown that these images encourage us to think and feel in new ways, be it through finding previously ignored interests, or having none at all. We have also considered the mindset of the photograph consumer, and the way the photograph is employed today. My proclamation is thus, that the combination of what the photograph means to people today; the way it is employed; the great wealth of supposedly surrealist artwork around; and the lack of cohesion between the norm, and the nature of photography; means that mundane imagery is absolutely surreal, and is becoming more strongly so by the day.

Jamie Edwards 10/07/2020

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