The combination of two or more photographs (or pieces of them) to form a single image. The technique came to prominence as a Dadaist form of political protest during the First World War and was later adopted by Surrealist and Pop artists.
Artists first began to experiment with photomontage techniques during the mid-Victorian era, with some of the earliest examples traced back to pioneering photographers Oskar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson in the 1860s. But it was during the early twentieth century that the technique became truly popularised as an art form by the Berlin Dada Group, who saw in its broken, distorted realities the potential to reflect the terror of living through the First World War. In contrast with traditional art forms such as drawing and painting, deconstructed photographic matter offered up startling levels of realism, making their imagery all the more visually arresting.
With images lifted from historical artefacts and the mass media, Dadaists found ways to create disturbing satirical motifs through crude, jagged forms and uncanny juxtapositions. Hannah Höch’s photomontages observed twentieth-century German society with an acerbic, feminist eye, raising issues about class, gender and political inequalities with a succinct visual language. In her Aus der Sammlung: Aus einem ethnographischen Museum (From the collection: From an ethnographic museum), 1929, she highlights Weimer Germany’s patriarchal attitude towards women, which reduced them on the one hand to infantile and inferior beings, yet at the same time objectified them like museum artifacts.
The adventurous and experimental Max Ernst was a leading pioneer in new collage and photomontage techniques, exploring what he called, '…the systematic exploitation 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'. Amongst his hugely varied output, Untitled (Unpublished collage for Une Semaine de Bonte), 1934 brings together nineteenth century, near-photographic engravings into new, otherworldly scenes where dream-like, narrative scenarios unfold.
The Unconscious Mind
Ernst stepped across the divide from Dadaism into the realms of Surrealism, carrying his photomontage ideas with him to Paris. Like Ernst, French Surrealists saw in photomontage techniques the power to create uncanny new worlds that delved into matter from the subconscious human mind, where disturbing new versions of reality became possible, often reflecting the psychological torment and unrest brought about by war. Both Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore produced works of art in this vein, rendering once familiar images into strange, fragmentary parts that seem to float in an unknown ether. Surrealist Georges Hugnet produced photomontage collages for over 30 years, tapping into the realms of male desire and erotic fantasy through the incorporation of pornographic imagery.
Artists in Soviet Russia were also among the first to experiment with the subversive nature of photomontage throughout the 1920s and 1930s, including Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitsky, Gustav Klutsis, Piotr Galadzev and Varvara Stepanova, exploring the power of collaged together photographic material to represent revolutionary government ideals, or as educational tools of propaganda.
Throughout the 1950s and '60s, various Pop artists in Britain and the United States steered Dadaist and Surrealist photomontage techniques away from haunting, psychological content towards socio-political commentary. As post-war, capitalist society became infiltrated with consumerist advertising, artists were given a whole new playground of visual matter to subvert and upend.
In the United Kingdom, Eduardo Paolozzi made a seemingly endless stream of cut and paste collages from various American magazines, often featuring idealised or sexualised male and female figures alongside expensive objects of desire such as cars, motorbikes and aeroplanes, pointing towards the unrealistic and objectifying nature of the mass media. In British artist Richard Hamilton’s iconic satirical collage, Just What is it That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, (1956), the same ideas are encapsulated with a modern day Adam and Eve set amidst the ideal new American home, surrounded by all the latest gadgets.
Throughout the 1970s and '80s postmodernist era photomontage techniques became popular as a form of pastiche or political protest, as seen in the work of British artist and designer Linder, while today, photomontage techniques are continuously updated by contemporary artists in surprising and unexpected ways. Some update images from the past with traditional techniques, such as John Stezaker, who explores elegant, absurd combinations of found imagery with a cut and paste method lifted from the Dada handbook, while Tony Swain incorporates layered assemblages of newsprint photographs with passages of paint with, veering towards the realms of abstraction. Others have integrated the new possibilities opened up by digital software into their practice, expanding photomontage techniques into film and video, such as Luke Fowler, who splices still and moving imagery together to create haunting visual poems that disrupt the traditional role of film.