The surreal way of subconscious selling

December 12, 1997

Photography. The way we conceptualise pictures, the media's use of disturbing images, and surreal selling

WESTERN society has plundered the once anti-establishment surrealist ideology to produce highly marketable eye-catching advertising images, according to a leading expert on photography, writes Alan Thomson.

David Bate, senior lecturer in photography at Surrey Institute of Art and Design, says that surrealism, which reached its zenith in the 1930s, became a victim of its own success in creating new images. While the movement has long since lost its ideological force, its reality-perverting images are increasingly popular, particularly in the media.

Mr Bate, whose doctoral research is titled "Surrealism and Photography, Sexuality, Colonialism and Social Dissent", says that easy-to-use computer software packages are driving the use of surreal images to advertise products on television, in magazines and on billboards. He says that the products advertised tend to be non-essential or luxury items.

The images affect the subconscious, Mr Bate says. Spectators may therefore unwittingly make subconscious associations with the images, which in turn impart certain barely realised, although nonetheless powerful, impressions of the product. Crucially, the advertising images and associated feelings are not conceptualised in the same way that the original surrealists would have viewed their work.

He said: "Surrealism was a victim of its own success in developing these new images. There was something enigmatic about the images and that has been plundered by advertising. The enigmatic qualities of the images remain however."

Mr Bate's thesis examines surrealism in its heyday, looking at the sexual, political and cultural context of the movement. He then examines issues of contemporary surrealism.

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