In the 1920s and 1930s, the body and non-body were the photographic object and subject from multiple perspectives. As well as the more classical approach that studied the human body as a source of formal possibilities, with the naked skin a surface that uniquely captured light, the experimental and transformative techniques of photography made possible the creation of images which were a visual expression of the ideas conceived by artists connected to Surrealism.
Nineteen-thirties Paris was a place of encounter for photographers from Germany, Hungary, the USA and also France. Despite the differing styles and with no manifesto or defined movement, they were labelled the “Paris School” owing to the shared vindication of a modern aesthetic, as well as common interrelations, exchanges and influences.
In 1930, Germaine Krull, of German descent, published the portfolio Études de nu with twenty-four photographs of nude women and with an introduction explaining her conception of photography as an artisan craft and as a testimony of her era. Krull included the expression “Miroir reformant”, taken from a text Jean Cocteau wrote about her, which stated: “You are a reforming mirror. You and the camera obscura obtain a new world, a world fusing machinery and the soul”. Krull’s innovative vision was shared by contemporaries such as French photographer and film-maker Eli Lotar and Hungarian photographer André Kertész, with all three publishing their work in the prestigious annual magazine Photographie, edited by Arts et Métiers Graphiques, and in the magazine Vu, a publication founded by Lucien Vogel, who defined himself as a reinventor of photography due to the prominence of his work on its pages.
Man Ray was one of the most active photographers in the exploration of photography’s experimental possibilities, demonstrated in his more personal works and commissions for fashion publications. Directly connected to Surrealism, he made use of photographic strategies — solarization, blurring, fragmentation, rotation, distortion — which produced an estrangement of the body, illustrating the concept of “formlessness” described by Bataille. The category of formlessness, which allows any structure organising reality to be broken, can be seen through a body photographed from unusual angles, and with partial framing or unnatural effects.
In 1938, Man Ray took part in Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, held in Paris. In a section entitled Les Plus belles rues de Paris he recreated an avenue flanked by mannequins worked upon by artists such as Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, Maurice Henry, Sonia Mossé, Marcel Duchamp, André Masson, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Wolfgang Paalen, Kurt Seligmann, Óscar Domínguez and Léo Malet. The mannequin figure brought together concepts linked to Surrealism and was frequent in its imagery and symbology. Moreover, the mannequins personified the Freudian idea of “the uncanny”; they were laced with ambiguity and were an erotic object at the same time as they endowed the frontiers between the living and the inanimate with corporeality.