The world we live in is filled with stress. A 24-hour news cycle, global warming, and day-to-day responsibilities all add up to us feeling overwhelmed. Absurdism aims to break free of this.
Words and Photography by James Caswell
In the tumultuous climate of the present, there is something revolutionary about creating photos that have a sense of humour. Photography that is absurd, ridiculous, and illogical can help break us out of these day-to-day stresses and through humour, create dialogue.
Absurd styles of expression gained prominence in a post-war society that was feeling increasing anxiety towards the uncertain world around them. The term describes nonsensical, irrational aspects of life and aims to give meaning to this uncertainty. It was championed in the Dada movement in the early 20th Century, continuing through the Fluxus movement and through to today.
There is something enduring about poking fun – showing the ridiculousness of the world, and the photography greats of past decades agree. Whether it is in the street photography of Daniel Arnold and Martin Parr, or the magnificent self-portrait creations of Cindy Sherman, these artists are all influenced by the Absurd to explore the deep richness of life.
“There is something enduring about poking fun.”
Here are 4 techniques, both visual and style-oriented, that you can harness to begin to create absurd work.
This involves exploiting an optical illusion to make an object appear closer, larger or smaller than it actually is. Scaling objects in your image makes them look unfamiliar and strange – creating an uncomfortable feeling of intrigue in the viewer. For example: putting an object incredibly close to the camera and having your subject in the background simulating picking it up.
The act of repeating an object or subject in the frame gives it importance and can build a sense of tension in your photograph. A man sitting on both sides of a table at a cafe appearing to have a conversation with himself, a dog photographed with ten legs or two heads. These photographs may need the help of digital manipulation but can begin to unlock ideas that are out of this world.
This technique can be explained as creating a narrative in your photo and then introducing something that is ‘not so’ – that doesn’t fit with that established narrative. The unexpected can be introduced and exploited by absurd photographers to create an unsettling feeling within the viewer. For example, a woman walking down the street and there is a dog peeing on the sidewalk behind her. Or a beautiful Elizabethan style portrait but the model is wearing a singlet and shorts. Breaking the 4th wall is another great way to add something unexpected and put your viewer on edge.
“When planning your shoot, think about how to magnify elements to achieve the absurd.”
Exaggerate it All
Over-the-top makeup. Outlandish clothes. Ridiculous scenarios. To get the message across don’t be subtle. When planning your shoot, you should think about how to magnify elements to achieve the absurd. If a subject is drinking from a wine glass, why not a comically large glass? If the subject is a school boy sitting for their yearly portrait, why not dress him in ill-fitting clothes, an uncomfortable grin, and place him deep within the frame to look tiny in comparison?
Experimenting with creating absurd scenes can unlock a new world of ideas for your visual output. It can help you see new ways to express your points and maybe make a few people laugh in the process. In an increasingly serious world, we must look for humour and irreverence to show us the way.