What Is Photomontage?

Photomontage is a popular art technique with a long history, that involves pasting together different photographs into a single image.

Aug 2, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art


A photomontage is an image constructed from collaged photographs. It has been a potent means of communication within the field of visual art since at least the early 20th century, first appearing most frequently in the work of Dada artists including Hannah Hoch and John Heartfield. Since then, photomontage has remained popular amongst artists working with a range of different styles and images. Given the way photomontage can upend and subvert pre-existing imagery, it has been a popular means of communicating political protest or dissent over the past century, often with a jarring and unsettling effect. We take a look through some of the key moments throughout art history that have defined the full potential of photomontage


The Earliest Photomontages Emerged in Victorian Society

Fading Away, Henry Peach Robinson, 1858, The Met
Fading Away, Henry Peach Robinson, 1858, The Met


Some of the earliest examples of Photomontage emerged during the 1850s. French photographer Hippolyte Bayard toyed with superimposing subjects onto different backgrounds. Meanwhile Oscar Gustave Rejlander experimented with a technique he called ‘combination printing’, which involved merging together multiple photographic images into a single work of art. Another early pioneer in photomontage was Henry Peach Robinson who famously produced composite prints with a dreamy, pre-Raphaelite quality. Other novelty photomontages were a popular culture gimmick, toying with playful motifs such as merging people and animals, or telling sentimental stories in the advent of war.


Photomontage Was Adopted by the Dadaists

hannah hoch cut with the dada kitchen knife 1919
Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany by Hannah Höch, 1919, via Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Various Dada artists played with photomontage as a means of socio-political satire throughout the early 20th century. Leaders in Dada photomontage include George Grosz, John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch. The technique gave Dadaists the opportunity to produce images with an absurd, ridiculous or disturbing quality, merging together propaganda or publicity images with excerpts from newspapers, magazines and photographs. The fragmented nature of their images also seemed suited to a society torn apart by war, and the ensuing feelings of alienation and dislocation. 


A Tool for the Russian Constructivists

The Constructor El Lissitsky 1924
The Constructor, El Lissitsky, 1924

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


Photomontage was also popular amongst the Russian Constructivists including El Lissitsky, Alexander Rodchenko, and Varvara Stepanova, who merged photographic images with elements of stark, bold and brightly coloured graphic design to produce powerful images that promoted the cause of the Russian Revolution. El Lissitsky was particularly experimental, producing richly complex designs made from photographs.


Surrealists Adopted Photomontage for Its Uncanny Effects

L’esprit de Locarno, Max Ernst, 1929
L’esprit de Locarno, Max Ernst, 1929


While earlier examples of photomontage were directly political, the French Surrealists took the technique in a new direction, exploring how sourcing and combining multiple images together could produce strange, jarring, unsettling or dream-like effects. Max Ernst was particularly drawn to photomontage and collage, which he described as “the systematic exploration of the accidentally or artificially provoked encounter of two or more foreign realities on a seemingly incongruous level – and the spark of poetry that leaps across the gap as these two realities are brought together.”


A Defining Feature of Pop Art

sgt pepper lonely hearts club jann haworth
Album cover for The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band designed by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, 1967, via MoMA, New York


Photomontage was particularly prevalent in British Pop Art, as seen in the work of various artists associated with the Independent Group, including Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake, who all took photographic sources from magazine advertisements and newspapers and pieced them together into gimmicky, playful images that critiqued consumerist society. Meanwhile in the United States James Rosenquist and Martha Rosler played with how to merge elements of photomontage and collage together.


Photomontage Plays a Key Role in Contemporary Art

Mask XXXV John Stezaker 2007
Mask XXXV, John Stezaker, 2007


Photomontage is more relevant than ever in contemporary art, with its ability to reflect the complexities of the digital age. Artists including Barbara Kruger and Lorna Simpson explore how photomontage can be a means of social critique or commentary, while others, such as John Stezaker and David Hockney, have experimented with how photomontage can reflect our multifaceted perceptions of the modern world.

Author Image

By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.