Review: Photomontage (Thames and Hudson World of Art series), by Dawn Ades

Photomontage, by Dawn Ades
Photomontage, by Dawn Ades

Photomontage, as Dawn Ades notes in her introduction to the book of the same title, is as old as photography itself. It’s evolved alongside the medium, sometimes engaging it in dialogue (as with William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1830’s work, which presaged Man Ray and others), sometimes confronting it (as with John Heartfield and Hanna Hoch’s cutting, politically charged work), and sometimes raising a funhouse mirror to the culture at large, as in Paul Citroen’s Metropolis.

Photomontage, simply stated, is the combination of two or more photographs to produce a third work. The composite that results can be something that’s very obviously cobbled together, or something that’s so seamlessly done that it looks like a single image that came straight off of a single frame of film, or a single image from your camera’s memory card. While that kind of compositing can be done with (relative) ease now in Photoshop, it was once an operation that was quite labor-intensive, involving literal cutting, pasting, and airbrushing… which makes some of these works that much more interesting and impressive (no clone stamps or healing tools here; try scissors, and rubber cement).

Ades’ work is heavily weighted to the first half of the Twentieth Century. This makes sense since this was the golden age of photomontage. It was also the first great boom both in affordable, easily portable cameras, which itself ushered in a golden age for photojournalism. Each of these things informed, and sometimes cannibalized, the others. However, Ades does not neglect the more recent history of the form, including its influence on Pop art and in such non-artistic forms as advertising. As if to reinforce this web of influences, the text occasionally circles back on itself, placing later works in the context of their earlier predecessors.

One reason this book makes for compelling reading is that it’s hard to imagine whole swaths of both high and low popular culture without photomontage as an influence or antecedent. There are plenty of obvious examples, from so much of advertising art and propaganda, to say nothing of Andy Warhol’s silk screens, Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines,” or Terry Gilliam’s whimsical animation work with Monty Python. But there are less obvious examples, as well. Whole swaths of literature owe a huge debt to montage, including Barthelme, Pynchon, and Rushdie, while music — from the hallucinatory mashups of Ferdinand Kriwet or Byrne and Eno to the cut-and-paste esthetics of hip hop and techno  — are practically unimaginable without it.

The great thing about this book, I think, is that unlike work that concerns itself primarily with “straight” photography, it encourages the reader to think of photography as something larger than itself. It becomes less a finished product than a jumping-off point, the initiation of something larger that treats the photograph as raw material to be manipulated, teased, or made to submit to some other artistic end. There’s something healthy in that, a reality check (or even, perhaps, a gut check) of sorts for photographers. Rather than viewing the print as an end in and of itself,an almost ritualistically charged object, we’re freed to view it from another angle. It becomes another piece of raw material, cut down to size (sometimes quite literally), but that also means it’s free to be something more than what it was originally. Even if you don’t practice montage, that’s a useful thought to keep in mind, because it can change and expand your sense of what your photography is capable of.


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