The Other Gorgon: Surrealism & Photography, c. 1929

Photography has always confounded any real attempt we have made to come to grips with its powers. Since it first appeared around 1826, the electromagnetic image has lost nothing of its miraculous appeal, while the camera has itself become inseparable from everyday life. Available to all in endless multiplications, the photograph even dares to rebuild the past. Perhaps this is why the Surrealists saw in photography a material answer to dreams. Perhaps it is also why they sought to corrupt it.

Belgian Surrealist Paul Nougé’s worked on his treatise on The Subversion of Images from 1929-30, but it was not published until 1968 in France, where it influenced Guy Debord’s famous critique of a society driven by the spectacular. It has now been translated into a fine cool English by M. Kaspar, and is available from Wakefield Press. Notably, many of the plates feature the author’s friend, Rene Magritte. Magritte claimed that he was not a painter at all but simply a person working out ideas. The Subversion of Images bears this out: it resembles both a journal and a magical tractate, beguiling and pedagogic at the same time.

According to Xavier Canonne’s informative afterward, the book was never completed; the order of contents and even the title of the book are contested. What remains is arranged very ordinarily. For example, a photo of a woman raising her hands in horror at a ball of string on a table is examined via the objects in the frame and the model’s reactive pose, followed by several hypotheses about the effects of the picture. There are no tricks such as the double-exposure and when the pictures contain things such as mirrors, they are without symbolism. Still, there is a feeling of collage about the images – like illustrations in an eerie school textbook or the manual for a séance written by Freud.

Nougé’s book is not concerned with memory nor even with the fantastic, per se. There are no minotaurs, giant insects, or manipulations of fourth-dimensional space. Every scene is certainly possible. A woman could indeed be trimming her eyelashes with a scissor; even a pair of grasping black gloves is obvious (posed in a sinister manner). When Nougé imagines certain ‘impossible’ scenarios as further examples: a man eating his own hand, a woman inclined on a canvas (calling up Manet’s Olympia?), a candle being sown into a loaf of bread, they are part of the order of the grotesque exemplified by Max Ernst’s collages – nightmares made of the scraps of daily life. Here we also see the old Surrealist love of Max Fleischer’s animation and pulp horror serials.

Nougé takes pictures of people hanging clothes on invisible hooks, playing cards without cards and drinking with no drinks in hand. An object missing from a scene still retains its influencing agents. This trope, common to sight gags and vaudeville, takes on a terrifying aspect here: that of a mechanical immortality which clearly shows – in perhaps the sole quality photography shares with painting and plastic – that only a small number of possible scenes exist in the world. Like suspects in a murder trial, it is a number in inverse proportion to demand.

Poverty-stricken, the finite choice of place in photography must turn to the objects within its frame when, like any element in modern production, it is compelled to expand beyond its own limits. Moving fatefully inward from a first apparent illumination of the outside world, photography’s documentary powers fade into the anarchic preoccupations of the operator and the eccentricities of light and dark. Framed objects take on anachronism and formal juxtaposition, which is an ironic deficiency in a medium that once claimed a monopoly on truth. Photography is thus forced to admit that it is most barren art there is, if truth is part of the question – or it must recognize unanswerable questions, interrogations from purgatory (which might be the point of this book). Certainly, the black box relies on human participation in many ways, but it still presents itself as a mere slave to light and remembrance. This still does little to explain why photography is the most informal but also the most didactic of expressions. And how does it manage to be both effortless and agonized at the same time (anyone can take the greatest photo ever known – and this has nothing at all to do with ability or talent, the best machinery or training, with anything like an artistic ‘moment’ etc.)? All photographs are roughly contemporary, simply because photography was invented almost within living memory. The longer you look, any sense of the past vanishes like an inexplicably moving photo into the monstrous archive of every picture ever taken. Forgery and fabrication only render any disguise more transparent.

Nougé’s experiments also show an unexpected lineage of the shuttered stasis of still life painting – that strange father of the daguerreotype, an atrophied ‘realistic’ form which always seemed to point out the alienation of riches or penury in absentee owners – and the mysterious intruder lurking between the camera and the subject. Neither glorifying nor condemning the strange force of photography, Nougé attempts to harness its energies by demonstrating the true meaning of theory met in action – a shot.

The camera holds dearly things that have been abandoned almost before they appear – an impress, an idea, vacations and expressions, paths leading off. This is the tragic part of the subversion of images, related to phantasmagoria and the entropy of the senses (like Morel’s famous invention). Nougé has created a history where photography occurred as a wholly accidental technology, ‘discovered’ by investigators on the way toward another goal which has long since been forgotten. Another revolutionary inference from this little book: If you can only photograph the past or the imaginary, it can only be done from that present where we must always live.

As Tony Benn recently remarked: There’s no final victory. And there’s no final defeat.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.