A Short History of Photomontage I: 1822-1945

by Disphotic

Man Ray once said that he painted what he could not photograph. Photomontage is a technique that falls somewhere between the two disciplines, combining collage, painting and photography to create images that abandon the assumed representational truth of photography without fully rejecting its aesthetic.

The techniques involved and the level of sophistication varies from artist to artist, and has evolved with technology from the cut and paste approach of early artists, through to the sophisticated image manipulation of the present day. Victorian photographers either cut and pasted or printed multiple images on a single sheet of paper to produce composite photographs showing dramatic landscapes scenes or strange and impossible juxtapositions, an adult’s head on a baby’s body and so forth.

During the first world war photographers like Frank Hurley used photomontage techniques to capture the horror of the trenches. While challenging the modern notion of documentary photography in the sense that such images were heavily manipulated, Hurley was justified in the use of these techniques in the sense that a single photograph was simply incapable of showing such scenes in their true form. Hurley’s images are particularly breathtaking, and many of them bear more similarity to renaissance painting than war photography as we know it today.

The twenties proved to be the golden age of photomontage. The political turmoil of post-war Europe was a hotbed of radical art and a battlefield for disparate ideologies. The two converged as artists took sides in politics, and used photomontage to support or critique competing political movements. In Germany particularly, the collapse of the Weimar republic and the rise of Nazism was the backdrop for the fervent production of political photomontage.

John Heartfield used photomontage to savagely attack the Nazi party, often twisting the symbols and rhetoric of the regime to do so, as in the 1932 montage ‘Millions Stand Behind Me’ a phrase used frequently by Hitler to shows his popular support, but which Heartfield used to attack him for his reliance on wealthy backers donating millions of Reich marks to the Nazi cause. Another Heartfield montage shows a chimp and a stork in Berlin zoo apparently discussing the contents of a copy of Die Sturmer, the Nazi party paper.

The Dadaist Hannah Hoch was also a key figure in photomontage, which she initially used like many others to attack the shortcomings of the Weimar republic, which appeared to be many to be little more the a continuation of the old order. Increasingly however she also used photomontages to vent her own frustration at the other Dadaists (almost all men) and the way they largely failed to live up to the egalitarianism, particularly in terms of gender, that they so often paid lip service to.

By contrast in Soviet Russia photomontage, like most art, served to support the political orthodoxy of the state rather than undermine it. Aleksander Rodenchenko’s montages of the construction of the White Sea canal helped to make publically palatable what was essentially a one hundred and forty mile long gulag, where as many as ten thousand people died. Rodenchenko, by no means a die-hard Stalinist, also often produced montages for non-political purposes, as in his film posters for Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin.

Photomontage remained an important component of the propaganda conflict, throughout the Second World War particularly in the Soviet Union, although to some extent graphic design, particularly in the style practiced by artists like Abram Games became the pre-eminent propaganda medium. One look at Games’s posters however and it is evident that graphic artists of the time were employing similar visual devices to make messages both visually striking and easy to remember.