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
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
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
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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
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
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
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.