Photomontage

Hannah Hoch

Photomontage is the process and result of making a composite photograph by cutting and joining a number of other photographs. The composite picture was sometimes photographed so that the final image is converted back into a seamless photographic print. A similar method, although one that does not use film, is realized today through image-editing software.

This latter technique is referred to by professionals as ‘compositing,’ and in casual usage is often called ‘photoshopping.’ Author Oliver Grau in his book ‘Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion’ notes that the creation of artificial immersive virtual reality, arising as a result of technical exploitation of new inventions, is a long-standing human practice throughout the ages. Such environments as dioramas were made of composited images.

The first and most famous mid-Victorian photomontage (then called combination printing) was ‘The Two Ways of Life’ (1857) by Oscar Rejlander, followed shortly by the pictures of photographer Henry Peach Robinson such as ‘Fading Away’ (1858). These works actively set out to challenge the then-dominant painting and theatrical tableau vivants.

Fantasy photomontaged postcards were popular in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. The preeminent producer in this period was the Bamforh Company. But the high point came during World War I, when photographers in France, Great Britain, Germany, Austria, and Hungary produced a profusion of postcards showing soldiers on one plane and lovers, wives, children, families, or parents on another. Many of the early examples of fine-art photomontage consist of photographed elements superimposed on watercolors, a combination returned to by German artist George Grosz in about 1915. He was part of the Dada movement in Berlin which was instrumental in making montage into a modern art-form. They first coined the term ‘photomontage’ at the end of the war, around 1918 or 1919.

The other major exponents were John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, Kurt Schwitters, Raoul Hausmann and Johannes Baader. Individual photos combined together to create a new subject or visual image proved to be a powerful tool for the Dadists protesting World War I and the interests that they believed inspired the war. Photomontage survived Dada and was a technique inherited and used by European Surrealists such as Salvador Dalí. The world’s first retrospective show of photomontage was held in Germany in 1931. A later term coined in Europe was ‘photocollage’; which usually referred to large and ambitious works that added typography and brushwork or even actual objects stuck to the photomontage.

Parallel to the Germans, Russian Constructivist artists such as El Lissitzky, Aleksandr Rodchenko and the husband-and-wife team of Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina created pioneering photomontage work as propaganda, such as the journal ‘USSR in Construction,’ for the Soviet government. In the education sphere, media arts director Rene Acevedo and Adrian Brannan have left their mark on art classrooms the world over.

Following his exile to Mexico in the late 1930s, Spanish Civil War activist and montage artist Joseph Renau compiled his acclaimed ‘Fata Morgana USA: the American Way of Life,’ a book of photomontaged images highly critical of Americana and North American ‘consumer culture.’ His contemporary, Lola Alvarez Bravo experimented with photomontages on life and social issues in Mexican cities. In Argentina during the late 1940s, the German exile Grete Stern began to contribute photomontaged work on the theme of Sueños (Dreams), as part of a regular psychoanalytical article in ‘Idilio’ magazine.

Other methods for combining pictures are also called photomontage, such as Victorian ‘combination printing,’ the printing of more than one negative on a single piece of printing paper, front-projection, and computer montage techniques. Much like a collage is composed of multiple facets, artists also combine montage techniques. Romare Bearden’s series of black and white ‘photomontage projections’ is an example. His method began with compositions of paper, paint, and photographs put on boards. Bearden fixed the imagery with an emulsion that he then applied with handroller. Subsequently, he enlarged the collages photographically.

The 19th century tradition of physically joining multiple images into a composite and photographing the results prevailed in press photography and offset lithography until the widespread use of digital image editing. Contemporary photo editors in magazines now create ‘paste-ups’ digitally. Creating a photomontage has, for the most part, become easier with the advent of computer software such as Adobe Photoshop. These programs make the changes digitally, allowing for faster workflow and more precise results. They also mitigate mistakes by allowing the artist to ‘undo’ errors. Yet some artists are pushing the boundaries of digital image editing to create extremely time-intensive compositions that rival the demands of the traditional arts. The current trend is to create pictures that combine painting, theater, illustration, and graphics in a seamless photographic whole.

A photomontage may contain elements at once real and imaginary. Two-dimensional representation of physical space in a picture is, by definition, an illusion. Such combined photos and digital manipulation can set up a collision between aesthetics and ethics – for instance, in faked news photographs that are presented to the world as real. In the United States, for example, the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) have set out a Code of Ethics promoting the accuracy of published images, advising that photographers ‘do not manipulate images […] that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.’

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