Category Archives: Hands

How do you photograph dreams?

man ray profiel and hands 1932

The advent of the avant-garde in the early 20th century had a liberating effect on many photographers. Surrealism in particular was a godsend for those frustrated by the verisimilitude of photographs, by their adherence to realism. Man Ray (1890-1976) was the driving force behind revolutionising photography in this way, turning it into a poetic means to investigate the world and the depths of the human psyche. New techniques like solarization and negative prints produced dream-like transformations that could provoke (at least at that time) a kind of psychic shock. In an interview in 1964, Man Ray observed, “The [solarization] technique allowed me to…get away from banality…to produce a photograph that would not look like a photograph.” His ambition was to photograph dreams and ideas rather than things. Using the new techniques, parts of the body – hands, faces – metamorphosize into dream-like aureoles that are alluring and strange. The lines which trace the shape of the body parts are sensual – almost erotic contours that fingers might map.

man ray  study of hands (negative solarisation) 1931

Man Ray – Study of Hands (negative solarization) 1930

man ray l'oeuf et le coquillage 1931

Man Ray – L’oeuf et le coquillage 1931


Filed under Arts, Black and white photography, Hands, Photography, Surrealism

Hands of a Puppeteer

modotti hands of puppeteer

Italian-born Tina Modotti (1896-1942), a committed Communist and ground-breaking photographer, took images of working people in Mexico in the 1920s and 30s in a refreshingly non-documentary and aesthetic manner. Hands were a particular preoccupation of hers. Hands of a Puppeteer (1929), whose subject comes from a popular form of Mexican entertainment, is an intriguing, artful composition that blends formal elements and political concerns. Modotti’s skill as an artist is revealed in, say, the dramatic contrasts of shadow and light, the criss-crossing diagonals of the arms/hands and wooden puppetry bars, and the textural detail of the strings draped across hands or the man’s arm-hair and veins. But as a politically engaged artist, Modotti would have been aware of how the idea of puppetry could be a social and political metaphor – the hands symbolising those in power, pulling the strings of the powerless. At the time there was growing disillusionment in Mexico concerning reform or emancipation for ethnic groups and the working-classes. Hands of a Puppeteer (1929) hints at this political message in a non-didactic way while offering an original, striking image.

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Filed under Arts, Black and white photography, Hands, Mexico, Photography

Hands Reading Braille

cunningham  hands of a blind man

Turning the photographic eye on particular parts of the human body was a distinctively 20th-century phenomenon – perhaps a latent metaphor for the fragmentation of the modern condition itself. The hands and the eyes, which lie at the root of the photographer’s craft, have been particularly privileged within the modern ‘focus on the fragment’.

An example is Imogen Cunningham’s (1883-1976) ‘Hands Reading Braille’. The pale hands, which emerge from a diffuse blackness – evocative of the man’s blindness – sit over white braille paper. The striking composition, and contrasting shade and light, suggest it is through the man’s hands, through touch, that he is able to reach out and ‘see’ in the darkness. The details of the bodily ‘fragment’ – the skin creases, protuding veins and tidy nails – accentuate the man’s profound humanity. Altogether this feels a quiet but potent image.

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Filed under Arts, Black and white photography, Hands, Photography