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Saturday, 4 June 2011


Photo montage: from the sublime to the ridiculous

“Photography, as we all know, is not real at all. It is an illusion of reality with which we create our own private world.”

Arnold Newman

Oscar Rejlander is usually credited with producing the first photomontage in 1857. Thirty two negatives were used to create the trashy moral fable he called The Two Ways of Life. One the right a group of young women representing virtue prayed, read and worked while on the left their not so clean living sisters swanned around in the nude. At the centre an old man was leading two boys through a portal. Naturally, the boy heading to the bad side wore a huge grin, his  Christian companion appeared thoroughly disappointed with his lot. The point to the thirty two negatives was that Rejlander wanted to demonstrate that photography could involve the same mix of imagination and labour as painting but anybody looking at a print today could be excused for wondering why he wasted so much effort. All he had to do was build a stage, hire some models and set out the props and he would have achieved the same result. The seamless printing that disguised the edges of the negatives effectively hid Rejlander’s most sincere intentions. As a photograph it is historically significant but as photomontage it was a failure. Photomontage ought not be about fooling the viewer but impressing them with visual dexterity. It should obviously be faked.

Art historians talk of high points and golden ages because they are useful reference points for locating movements. Photomontage, which you could scarcely call a movement in itself, had three apogees. The first was in the 1860s, when the new wet collodion process and albumen printing freed photographers from the restrictions of the daguerreotype. Now they could splice in special effects, studios ran wild with gimmicks such as having someone sit in a chair then stand next to himself, or pose against the Egyptian pyramids. There was also the very popular idea of fitting as many portraits on to one carte de visite as possible. Eugene Disdéri, the inventor of the CDV, is also acknowledged as the creator of this form. It wasn’t difficult to achieve, involving nothing more than the careful cutting out of faces, remounting and then re-photographing them, the same process behind most future uses of the idea.

The third period began just after the First World War and extended into the 1930s, when artists like Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and John Heartfield experimented with images, text and graphic design. Most of us would recognize that period as the genuine high point of photomontage. The work was political, consciously avant-garde and visually compelling, pushing the definition of photography into an area most people hadn’t considered before. But it owed a large debt to the mass produced postcards of the early 20th century, when photomontage was at its height in terms of commercial popularity and, probably, experimentation.

We can say that because the studios producing the images not only used combination printing but brought various media like watercolours, oils, screen prints and text as well as scraps of material, glass and glitter. The skill lay in keeping photography integral to the image. Without that it was no longer photomontage but photomechanical printing, which offered nothing in the way of mystery or surprise. Photography gave the image the element of authenticity. When it could have easily become perfunctory design.

A century on, few people take these postcards seriously as works of art, which is no lapse in judgement, but to do so would also miss their point. More than showing off their creative abilities, the studios were interested in making money and that meant glamorous and beautiful women, cute children, flowers and sentimental clichés (all the better if they were in the same scene) for a popular taste easily swayed by such banalities. What we get from them now is something stranger than art and it’s no surprise the Dadaists and Surrealists scoured artifacts of popular culture like these for inspiration.

Authentic photomontage required cutting and pasting, when those terms involved scissors and glue, but there were other methods, such as this fairground snap from Bulgaria of four men in a biplane, that gave the same effect. Whatever the process, the result was always meant to be tongue in cheek. The best creators in the medium never expected to be taken seriously. If nothing else, photomontage was honest.


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