How some of history's most frightening images were made without Photoshop

Story highlights

  • A new exhibition examines experimental European photography from 1920-1950
  • It features movements such as the avant-garde in Prague and the surrealists of Paris
  • Their work demonstrates the dream-like potential of photography
  • August 19 is World Photo Day

(CNN)The early-to-mid-twentieth century: a time of rebellion and subversion within art. A time when the shape and structure of the modern world became malleable, turning inwards, forced to reconcile itself with an identity twice fractured by war.

Emerging from this milieu was a group of photographers pushing the boundaries of their medium.
    The avant-garde in 1920s Prague, the surrealists in Paris and exponents of the Neues Sehen (New Vision) across Germany transformed photography into an uncanny art form blurring the real and the surreal. Buoyed by newer, smaller cameras and the emergence of roll film, these movements threw off the shackles of the painterly Pictorialist style dominant at the turn of the century, and sought out fresh perspectives.
    Nearly 100 years since these photographers first rose to prominence, their legacy is one worth exploring.

    New realities

    Over 200 rare images from Herbert Bayer, Hans Bellmer, Man Ray and more have been brought together at the Museum Bellerive, Zurich in "Real Surreal: Masterpieces of Avant-Garde Photography," running until July 24. The exhibition, largely comprised of the Dietmar Siegert collection, reveals a remarkable verve for experimentation and the ability to warp reality in an era before Photoshop.
    "The Eternal Eye", Grete Stern (circa 1950).
    If Dali called photography the "pure creation of the spirit," then these artists brought that spirit right to the surface. Techniques including solarization and photograms obscured reality, whilst photomontage and multiple exposures built upon it, creating a hyperreality where the impossible was realized.
    "The camera took on the crucial function of technically expanding human perception and adequately representing modern life with its cities, machines and society," argues Jacqueline Greenspan, project manager at the Museum Bellerive. "Unusual views and perspectives led to striking pictures."
    New perspectives were the trademark of the Neues Sehen says Greenspan. Meanwhile Bauhaus veterans Bayer and Grete Stern were creating photomontages with surreal inflections, going down the path of "ecriture automatique" ("thought photography"), exploring what Greenspan calls "the irrational, mystic and contradictory." Dream-like and impressionistic, they have lost none of their allure in subsequent years.
    Ask Greenspan what contemporary surrealist photographers can learn from their forebears and she'll tell you that despite technological advances, in one sense nothing has changed.
    "The work process stays the same whether in digital or analog photography," she argues. "It [is] more about how to compose a picture, how to transfer social issues, combined with the desire to cross borders in an artistic, experimental way."
    In an era of digital retouching, when the camera is no longer seen as a reliable tool, the point at which photography first departed reality has never been more prescient.
    "Real Surreal" is a reminder that in the right hands, the humble camera can achieve a higher purpose, translating life into the most conceptual art imaginable.