The inter-war period must have been one of the most exciting and challenging times for photographers, so it’s perhaps not surprising then that there was such a wealth of photographic experimentation taking place. As a form of mechanical production, photography was at first criticised by the art establishment for being more of a technological breakthrough than an artistic one. Photography was impressive, a triumph of science and engineering, but it was never going to be art.
Then came the World War 1, and from it emerged a new breed of artist, more challenging, more questioning and prepared for change. The Dadaists, a group of highly creative artists and writers who had fled Germany and Romania for neutral Switzerland in WW1, were anti-art, anti-war and anti-establishment. Here was a group of men and women who embraced the new medium of photography and enjoyed its modern means of creating images. Their experiments with photography, excellent examples of which appear in the Another World exhibition showing at the Dean Gallery, include the early use of double exposures, distorted perspectives and the choice of highly unconventional subjects. They also explored photograms – cameraless photographic prints – and created some of the earliest abstract photographs. Photograms were not new, William Henry Fox Talbot called his ‘photogenic drawings’, but Man Ray made them his own, calling his photograms ‘rayographs’.
When the war finally ended, Dada disbanded. Man Ray moved to Paris and joined up with another group of artists who became known as the Surrealists. One day, unannounced, the American model and photographer Lee Miller knocked on his door and introduced herself as his new assistant. It was in his darkroom that she accidentally discovered Solarisation (an effect already known but not yet fully exploited for the creation of photographs). In the exhibition there is a wonderful example of this process as well as other photographs by Miller. There is also the iconic Surrealist emblem of her left eye gazing straight at us, like a camera lens. These new experiments in photography created some of the most irrational, dreamlike and sensual images of Surrealism. In Surrealism the lens reigned supreme.
Another World: Dalí, Magritte, Miró and the Surrealists is showing at the Dean Gallery, Belford Road, Edinburgh until 9th January 2011.