Surrealism – distorted image – essay from 2018

This is here because I wanted to use and refer to this research in A5 BOW L3.

Title: The photographic discourse of ‘Altered Images’ to show ‘self:’ passé or still pertinent?

Word count including quotations (2,839)

Word count excluding quotations (2,313)

List of illustrations

No 1: Man Ray. (1922). ‘La Marquise Cassati.’ Curiator,

No 2: Kertesz, A. (1933). ‘Distortion #33.’ Metropolitan Museum of Art., Gelatin silver print.

No 3: Deakin, J. (1957).’ Portrait of Peegan Guggenheim, Paris, 1957’. British Art Studies, Issue 1, 2015., John Deakin Archive.

No 4: Woodman, F. (1977-78).’ Untitled, Rome, Italy.’ Galerie Clara Maria Sels, silver gelatin estate print.

No 5: Samaras, L. (1973). ‘Photo-transformation 12/13/73, 1973.’, artsy.netSX 70 Polaroid.

No 6: Fontcuberta, J. (2005). ‘Maligna’. In the article ‘Joan Fontcuberta: is there anything like photography in Gogglegrames?’ by Pol Capdevila,

The photographic discourse of ‘Altered Images’ to show ‘self:’ passé or still pertinent?

‘In Photography there are no unexplained shadows’ (Sander,1997)


My first memory of a distorted image was the solarised form of Dr Who’s metaphysical transition into the ‘New’ Doctor; that spoke to me of personal and metaphysical anguish (BBC, 2009).          

Increasingly, as I produce series to convey emotions and feelings about the ‘inner self,’ as in this module, I have begun to question the value of distorted images to do the same thing. That is the impetus behind this investigation. 

I will examine the role of “Altered Images’ in photographic discourse to reveal psychological states. Are they anachronistic or do they still have relevance in the digital age? 

My definition of ‘altered images’ includes, double exposure, distorted, de-focused, deformed or blurred images where the photographer’s intention is or is interpreted to reveal the ‘hidden self.’ These alterations can be produced in camera, during processing, after printing or digitally. 

My theoretical framework includes, psychotherapy, surrealism, ideas of self and other, ‘queer’ theory, feminism and postmodernism. 

My investigation includes a critique of ‘altered images’ by Man Ray, Andre Kercazs, John Deakin, Francesca Woodman, Lucas Samaras and Joan Fontcuberta. We will travel from early experimental ‘ghost’ images via the photographer ‘surrealists,’ referencing psychotherapeutic ideas in their work, to contemporary practitioners who question personal and photographic reality. 

A ‘Spiritualism’ awakening

‘Ghost’ images of the 1860s were the first ‘altered photographic images’ (Golden, 2003; Eastman 2005). The first practitioner, William Mumler, claimed to capture images of the recently departed (Meier, 2016). This was a response to the growth and popularity of Spiritualism which “encouraged a closer religious connection between life and the afterlife.” His most famous image is of the newly assassinated Abraham Lincoln alongside his bereaved wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Meier, 2016; Mumler, 1870). A key practitioner in the UK was William Hope who “ pulled the same tricks as Mumler, preying on despair” (Meier, 2016). Mumler, Hope and others were eventually exposed for their fraud; a key antagonist was the illusionist Harry Houdini. 

‘First-wave’ Surrealism 

Surrealistic photography was stimulated by the Surrealist Manifesto’ of the 1920’s which “announced…the belief in a truth beyond realism”. Surrealism was a response to Freud’s innovative theories of the unconscious self; ‘persona’ and ‘hidden self’ (Freud, 1957). Surrealist photographic practice became experimental with the “free association and other methods of side stepping the monitoring rational mind” (Marien 2010).

Man Ray, Kertesz, Brassai, Bellmar and Ubac are key practitioners (Marien, 2010). Man Ray experimented with images to suggest psychological states and Belmar “mismatched and twisted mannequins to suggest Oedipal complexes” (Krauss, 1985). Blur, solarisation and brulage (burning film) were all experimental techniques employed by the surrealists.

In Man Ray’s portrait, the ‘Marquise Cassati’ she confronts you with two or three eyes (Man Ray, 1922). She is startled, serious and and the gaze is directed to the observer; it is unsettling. The conative aspects of the image are historical and cultural. We know that the marquise was “incredibly beautiful” and wealthy, lived a hedonistic lifestyle, lost her fortune and died in poverty; perhaps this image pre-figures her decline. 

Man Ray is evasive and disingenuous about the meaning of this image, implying that it was “accidental,” but this was deliberately made in cameras and other texts confirm his desire to illustrate the depersonalisation of the marquise. He says, “It might have passed for a Surrealist version of the Medusa…she said I had portrayed her soul” (Martin, 1982). We know that Freud had just published a short essay on the Medusa myth which was popular in contemporary culture: “Medusa marks…repressed chaos that cannot be dealt with, that language is incapable of grasping” (Freud,1922; Masschelein, 2003). 

The Kertesz image, ‘Distortion #33’, is a another altered images constructed a decade after Man Ray (Kertesz, 1933). It denotes the mirror reflection of a nude woman in a chair, with distorted elongated head, left shoulder and leg. Her hands covering the genital area. The conative aspects of the image are more complex. This picture was published in the ‘soft-porn’ magazine ‘Le Sourine’ and was probably intended to ‘titivate’ the male gaze (Bjerke, 2010). As a young man Kertesz “nourished an almost voyeuristic relationship to a girl who lived across the street” (Bjerke, 2010). In contrast Nany argues that these images “strip the female body of all its sexual connotations and draw our attention to the formal features of the image, for example the hands across the genitals connate forbidden sexual intimacy.” The feminist Carol Armstrong agrees that there is no “male gaze – only the gaze of the female subject directed at herself” (Armstrong, 1989). Unlike Man Ray there is no indication that Kertesz intended this image to speak about an inner self, even if it speaks to others about psychological states. 

I find this to be an alarming image and the facial expression references my own experiences of personal distress. It reminds me of Munch’s ‘Scream’ of despair which I have seen in Oslo (Munch, 1893). My reading makes the point that even if the intention of the photographer was not to illustrate psychological states it can still can ‘tap into’ the inner self. This is because of the iconic nature of deformed images in photographic discourse and popular culture.

‘Second wave’ Surrealists

A second highpoint in surrealist photography is Bill Brandt’s nudes and Arthur Fellig’s ‘Distortions’ in the 1950’s and 60’s (Armstrong, 1989; Delany, 2004; Barth, 2000). The focus of these practitioners was experimentation rather than attempts to display the unconscious. (Armstrong, 1989; Delany, 2004; Barth, 2000). 

Like Kertesz’s nudes Brant explores photographing the nude form which was a ‘traditional’ photographic subject. “Two of the traditional qualities of the female nude are lacking: sexual availability, and beauty displayed as a male possession.” We know that Brant trained with Man Ray and we can see echoes of that surrealist work in his images. 

Arthur Fellig seems more concerned with the production of ‘altered images.’ For example, he used the bottom of glass bottle to distort enlarger image as well as burning images. Experimentation with the photographic apparatus, and challenging the limitations of photography is an important theme in the discourse of ‘altered images’ (Flusser, 1983)

John Deakin employed double exposure to illustrate the hidden self. Francis Bacon, working at this time to “represent the reality of physical and psychological being as dynamic…” commissioned and used photographs by John Deakin, particularly his double exposure images of Soho art-scene characters (Crippa, 2018; Muir, 2014; Wakefield 2014). This is one of the most important juxtapositions between surrealist art and photography.

In 1957 Deakin took a double image of Peegan Guggenheim in her Paris studio (Deakin,1957). The donative aspects of the image are that the artists’ upper torso is subsumed within a forest of painting apparatus and the doubled head suggests real and psychological states. Her head is supported on one hand and arm and she is looking away in two directions; unlike the ‘Marquise’ the gaze is distracted and evasive. We know that she was estranged from her famous mother Peggy Guggenheim and later committed suicide. Speaking about this work Deakin says that “It is why those with a daemon …lend themselves being victims of the photographer’s gaze” (Law, 2015a). 

In other double images by Deakin of gay men Rousseau and Baoden connect these images to a surrealist influence that reflect the ‘double’ life of many gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Deakin also produced torn and deformed prints of gay friends and lovers to illustrate relational disorder and distress (Law 2015). 

‘Third Wave’ Surrealism? 

Much is made of Woodman’s mental illness and her blurred and partial images that are “anticipating her own disappearance” (McNay, 2016). She committed suicide, aged 22, by jumping from a tall building in New York; that “fateful knowledge cannot help but influencing the way we view her art” (Strauss, 2003)

I think that Francesca Woodman is a bridge between male generated surrealist imagery, as produced by Man Ray, which “privileges an eroticised a phantasmic femininity that was it’s (Surrealism’s) central fetish,” and feminist discourse about the body and hidden self (Martin,1982; Solomon-Godeau, 2017). Woodman clearly employs ‘Surrealistic’ methods, such as “mirrors, reflections, doublings and shadows, as well as its iconography (gloves, hands, the acephalic (headless) body, masks, the corps morcelle and sexual symbolism)” (Solomon-Godeau, 2017). 

Strauss suggests that the relationship between her work and surrealists is “not primarily one of style as at her time of working it had already become a cliché” (Strauss 2003). He comments that her intention is a “revolutionary desire to crack the code of appearances and see through the looking glass;” an important aspect of this is her preoccupation with exploring time (Strauss, 2004; Page 129). “Unlike first generation surrealists’ art…she returned to a more fundamental concern with the potential of the photography, like the dream, to suspend time and transform space” (Townend, 2006). 

‘Untitled, Rome, Italy,’ is a later picture by Woodman and exemplifies features of her work (Woodman, 1977-78). The body within the square frame is the angularly composition of a naked (apart from ‘pop-socks) Woodman bent over and carrying a out of focus picture or map on her back. There is map in focus in the corner of the room. Her image is partial, doubled and the shadow leg suggests movement. A serious or perhaps blank blurred face looks toward you. 

The doubled image in surrealism “is a deliberate attempt towards simultaneous representations of the real and the unreal and/or the illusory” (Krauss, 1985). She “upsets the promise of indexical proximity, as she performs a bodily displacement that re-stages the total ‘self-absence’ in the photographic act, reflected in the way her body gradually slips out of site” (Riches, 2004). Now you see her, now you don’t. Woodman is someone who blurs the lines between self and other, space and time, reality and imagination. 

This blurred image can also be interpreted within an existentialist framework. Rus comments that “it is a copy of it’s original which created a sense of failing uniqueness of subject as well as difference;” we are one of many, indistinct and illusory (Rus, 2014). Jane Simmons, reviewing Claire Raymond’s book on Woodman and the sublime, argues that Woodman eschews the common perception that her images are autobiographical, and says that they are “investigations of the nature of photography, space and perception” (Simon, 2012). Patricia Mathew sees in her work “rethinking of the cultural and psychological spaces traditionally assigned to women and consequently envisioning the subject self, particularly form a d psychoanalytic perspective.” I agree with these reading of her work because they speak to me of experiments with time and space rather than illustrations of depression and personal angst.

The last word about interpretation must go to Woodman from her journal, “I was inventing a language for people to see…and show them something different…Simply the other side” (Hanif, 2106). That ‘other side’ might be her developing theoretical framework and practice rather than her ‘Other Self.’

Post surrealism, Postmodern

Questions of self and identity expressed as altered images continue to be addressed by contemporary photographers.

Daniella Zalcmann creates double exposures to “obscure” or disguise the person and to illustrate their ‘hidden’ selves as LGBT persons in Uganda where homosexuality was declared illegal (Nichols, 2017). These images produced in her 2014 series, ‘Double Lives’, are echoes of Deakins work from the 1950s. They attempt to address LGBTQ activists’ desire for visibility while still protecting their images from local newspapers that had appropriated LBGT images alongside misleading and hateful language.

Contemporary explorations of the self continue to obscure or distort the human body particularly in portraiture (Ewing, 2006). Yotta Kippa combines digital portraits to produce portraits that lack definition and detail, “The image contains the entire dubiousness of our social reality in the direct, objective gaze of its subject” (Lundhorst, 2004). Like the surrealist before these are experiments and challenges the indexical nature of the photograph (Barthes) and to the viewer. 

Lucas Samaras, hand manipulates the dyes in Polaroid’s to distort the photographic image, sometimes blurring parts of his face with scratches and squiggles or misaligning his subjects. This is exemplified in the affective, colour-saturated series, “Photo-Transformations” (1973-1976) (Samaras, 1973). 

On the face of it the image ‘Photo-transformation 12/13/73, 1973.’ Is a highly distorted almost grotesque image of a face. Only the ‘shifty’ eyes, bearded chin and an ear are discernable as human anatomy. The head and person melts into the ether where there are no boundaries between real and imagined. The green and red colours reference the mould of disintegration and blood of violence. This reminds me of the work of of the mirror distorted work of Brian Catling (Catling,1993). Other interpret this self portrait of Samaras as being “angry, in pain, and at odds with himself” (Samaras, 1973). 

Like the Man Ray and Woodman, Samaras is coy about the meaning of this images and talks about experimentation “The thrill was that the camera itself was fantastic…It’s almost as if you have yourself and say, ‘okay, do something. Interest me. Excite me,’” (Samaras, Unknown.)

Joan Fontcuberta is is known for his photographic experimentation. My next image, ‘Maligne’ (or ‘Evil’), by Fontcuberta, was produced by 10,000 images from the internet “using the search words of demoniac forms and evil divinities” (Fontcuberta, 2005).

A naked person is present in the frame with outstretched arms to the side and head back as in surrender to a deity, but the image is made of thousand of ‘pixel-like’ images that bear no relation to the figure; “This icon is the reconstruction of a picture through other facts. The fact is not only connoted by a picture, is reconstructed by many other facts. We are now beyond the semiotic theory of denotation and connotation” (Capdevila, Unknown). I don’t agree completely with that assertion as it is still possible to use a donative and conative framework to to explain this image it does raise issues about the indexical nature of images and the reality of that picture represents. In this essay I am also judging it on its capacity to provoke something ‘other’ or psychological in me and the viewer. 

As an ‘altered image’ this is a punctum to me because I read personal and societal despair into the figure. I see the death (crucifixion) of the modernist self confident belief in the ‘saving nature’ of technology and existential despair and helplessness for the future. It is not a hopeful image. It looks like a solarised surrealist image by Ubac, (Ubac, 1939; page 79).

Whatever the reading of this image his work he is challenges the status quo and reflects cultural (the rise of the machines) and photographic experimentation.  


From a theoretical viewpoint ‘altered images’ are acts of “phenomenological doubt” because they are reactions to limitations in the photographic apparatus and program, and challenge photographic norms of their times (Flusser, 1983; Page 38). This is true for early ‘ghost’ images, surrealist distortions and contemporary digital manipulations; Man Ray and Fontcuberta have much in common in that they both challenge cultural and photographic norms.

Mullen points out that “People generally see photographic manipulation as move away from the inherently truthful nature of photography, but actually manipulation is often required in order to reveal truth” (Mullen, 1998). That link between ‘altered image’ and psychological states has become an iconic one. The Postmodern view would be that that “truth is a product of culture, which changes over time” (Mullen, 1998). In this discourse we see that shift from spiritualism to surrealism and then postmodernism with experiments with ‘altered influences’ that mirror these cultural changes. 

Whatever ‘altered image’ we examine, it is always interpreted in the light of the it’s production, societal and cultural practices and personal paradigms. 


1. ‘Altered images’ continue to have currency in contemporary photographic discourse to show self and hidden other. They are an essential part of photographic discourse and vocabulary.

2. ‘Altered images’ have become iconic signifiers of psychological distress. They are photographic ‘short-hand’ and contrast with series that build up a picture of distress, disturbance or disorder over several images. 

3. ‘Altered images’ reflect photographer’s instincts to experiment and subvert the process of image production. We see blurring, mirror distortion, burning prints or negatives and using the Internet to create photographic signs. It is only a question of how we next escape the limitations of the photographic apparatus.

4. Culture and theory influence photographic practice and discourse: just look at the amount of research and debate about what Francesca Woodman’s altered images say at their time of conception and today! 

Finally, this investigation has planted a desire in me to explore contemporary photographic practitioners that explore disordered self and other, space, time and reality: I could have written much more about contemporary practitioners but this module is framed within a psychotherapeutic/surrealist photography which is where my emphasis lies. 

I will experiment with some of these techniques in my next assignment to illustrate the disturbed lives of NHS whistleblowers. I may also deform a few Polaroid’s with my functioning home made sonic screwdriver (instructions downloaded from the Internet); ‘The Doctor’ would certainly approve of this ‘cosmic’ dimension to my future practice (Ray, 2013).


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