Project 1: The origins of photomontage

Project 1: The Origins of Photomontage


(i)Geoffrey Batchen

Batchen queries whether the social and cultural conditions making photography conceivable were also the same as those from which emerged computing as there was a network of people interested in both in the mid 1800s.  The fear also that art would be taken over by photography due to its immediacy and representation (Batchen 2002:2).

From the beginning there was a link with photography being associated with death – there was certainly a fashion for some time in those early days for photographing the dead, particularly children. There was also an anxiety regarding the death of painting and with the growth in technology and digital manipulation there became the fear of the death of photographs as being faithful to objective reality, due to the recognition that fakes could be passed off as real. To me this seems unrealistic given how much we know of the ways in which even the early photographs altered photographs in the darkroom. Considering the death of art, Batchen reminds us that digital images are and their manipulation by the human hand “ …are actually closer in spirit to the creative processes of art than they are to the truth values of photography” (2002: 18)

Due to the constraints of early photography the subject had to remain very still for long periods which made them look as if dead , “….photography insisted that, if one wanted to appear lifelike in a photograph, one first had to act as if dead.” (Batchen 1999: 11) and I do think that this continues with portraits where the subject is expected not to smile. Photography fixed a moment in time and, in a linear sequence, could show the passing of time – the changing of light and shadow so “Whatever its nominal subject, photography was a visual Inscription of the passing of time and therefore also an intimation of every viewer’s own inevitable passing” an aspect that Roland Barthes wrote about in Camera Lucida ( Batchen 199:13). Barthes view was that at least we would know that the person was once there in front of the camera.  I thought about that, given the exercises in layering to come, but decided this still held true if an actual photograph is used – however, what about computer visualizations such as in electronic games, mock-ups of housing estates etc. Batchen refers to these digital images as ‘signs of signs’, ‘representations of what is already perceived to be a series of representations:” (2002: 19). Turning to what it is to be natural/human, Batchen further reminds us that most of us are no longer ‘natural’ human beings – given that we eat genetically enhanced food and experience various forms of medical intervention.

(ii)Joan Fontcuberta

In his chapter I Knew The Spice Girls” (2014) Fontcuberta uses a manipulated photograph to write about truth and reality. A photograph from a magical street booth in London, Spring, 1997 where you can select an individual or group to join, ‘I still have the graphic proof to back up my boast’ (2014: 57) (and he also cleverly uses a specific date and place to add to his fiction and give the appearance of verisimilitude). Now I did have a written debate with fellow student Stephanie regarding whether this couldn’t be true anyway because such photo booths couldn’t have been invented in 1997 anyway. I think she proved me wrong with some internet links!.

Now Fontcuberta turns to the alleged death of photography – another move in the cycle from art to photography to …electronic photography and his question:

If photography is to be  understood not as a certain technique of representation but as a particular culture that sustained certain values, then we must establish whether digital photography will continue to sustain that set of values or replace it with others. (2014: 59)

According to Fontcuberta the photochemical process of photography, known long before, only came to fruition in the early C19th because ‘…. The tehnico-scientific culture of positivism required a process that could certify the empirical observation of nature’. Back we go to the indexical nature and ‘truth’ of photography now threatened by the digital where fictions can be constructed, like the Spice Girls photography, but be viewed as authentic.  I find this particularly interesting because there is now much written regarding Photoshopping techniques to make me slimmer and more beautiful, but not much comment regarding these images that keep appearing on home pages of sites such as Yahoo purporting to show hybrid animals and strange creatures probably from other worlds. Magical thinking continues into adulthood quite often – including to me because when I saw Fontcuberta’s Exhibition  at the V&A  I really wanted to believe such creatures could exist even though I knew they were his creation. Fontcuberta talks to the difference today in that although manipulation has always been present in photography, ‘….the difference now is our degree of familiarity with them and ease of use. Demystification and defeteishism. A new critical awareness’ (2014: 62).

He then moves on to think of the shift in our reception of images – the photograph as information and visual data (as in archives) and the photograph as object (as in museums) so that ‘ …. digital technology has dematerialized photography, which has now become pure visual data, content without physical matter, an image without a body.’ (ibid). Going back to the photo booth,  the old style looks to objectivity and registers human typologies (I hadn’t thought of that), whereas the digital ‘implants the notion of image as construct and discreetly nudges us towards photomontage and manipulation’ expanding our options.

The layered image : Exercise 1:1

The exercise ask us to do some further reading and then, using the list of artists as inspiration, create a series of six to eight images using layering techniques. To accompany these also produce a 500 word blog post on the work of one contemporary artist-photographer who uses layering techniques.

I found the photographers mentioned all very interesting in their different ways. I also paid attention to the ideas they were aiming to convey through the use of layering.  As I went through the exercise I quickly became aware of when I was ‘practising a technique’ to achieve something interesting to look at and then moved on to thinking how I would use the layering.  I was particularly interested in Helen Sear and Esther Teichmann and I can see their influence in the images I chose and how I used layering as I began to understand more of their intentions. In referring to a series the exercise could be suggesting I use similar examples of layering but I took the opportunity to experiment.

First attempts

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Emerging from the landscape – merging two images together

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View obscured – making the layering obvious. A flower mask; a pretty external appearance; the language of flowers.

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My younger self but ageing has affected my eyesight so that I nowI need to have a cataract removed from my left eye. My view of the world has become fragmented and I might return to this in a later exercise on photomontage.

Figures in a landscape

Beginning to think about objectification and woman as object.

The statues themselves are in the gardens of York House, Twickenham and they are quite unusual. I photographed them in 2012  in normal colour and also infra-red. Now I merged two with landscape images at around 50% opacity.

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Then I merged them at full opacity

Having looked at Esther Teichmann’s work and bought one of her books I was fascinated by the way in which she used photography as a portal to another world. Her installations layer portraits with larger backdrops of environments and again this is something I want to return to.

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The first layering used an infra-red image  (before processing) against the ‘backdrop’ of the cascade in Virginia Water. I could see the placement of the layer and different tones didn’t really work but thought there were possibilities.

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I think they translate more effectively into a muted pastoral view of an escape into landscape, but then I had an idea as to how I could utilise this for a return to the topic of objectification and the photograph.

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My final image (see below) is influenced by the work of Helen Sear

Helen Sear

Helen Sear  studied Fine Art and to me this is very evident in her work where she utilises both painting and photography. She is based in Wales and her work is very connected with exploration of the landscape and her immediate environment both there and in France.  Sear also re-presents the nature of experience and does this in a variety of ways.  This is what appeals to me because I was beginning to get fixed on the idea that ‘personal voice’ meant that I would always have to work in a particular way. Sear’s series Sightlines uses pottery/porcelain birds to obscure the faces of the female subjects so it is the eye of the bird that draws attention – in fact the eye is a recurring motif in her her work (as in her series Spot” where the eyes of birds are masked by dots). Is she connecting them with ‘bird’ as another noun for a young woman; flying away from home; building a nest; seeing young women as decorative objects; flighty? A review of her work on another website informs me that the background has been rendered  ‘with light brush strokes of gesso creating a dynamic between the digital and hand rendered. I have been intending to try painting on a photograph and this reminds me again that I still haven’t turned intention into action.

The book Inside the View (Chandler & Morris 2012) looks at key bodies of her work created over the previous 25 years. The first series, Inside The View, has what I would call a woman’s view of landscape, and a painterly one at that.

Reminiscent of the loss of self in the sublime, yet, there is nothing triumphal of abysmal in Sear’s self of hesitancy and vulnerability, decentered from a singular viewpoint that seeks to control the world (2012: 12)

This is not ‘the sublime’ but something more – a merging of woman and landscape. The women have their backs to us , obscuring their point of view.  The work of Susan Trangmer and Elina Brotherus come into mind but with Sear’s work there is more a sense of merging with the landscape whilst retaining the boundary of self. Photographs from different times and locations are combined, questioning the notion of the photograph as document and ‘truth’. Through use of an electronic tablet , Sear has drawn a series of lines through which the landscape emerges. In David Campany’s view  the line is the image and it ‘makes a virtue’ of an early photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot of a piece of lace included in his treatise The Pencil of Nature  Sear has achieved an image containing layers and textures that is created by a combination of computer and digital drawing.

In a later series Beyond the View the colours are stronger, more vivid. The layers appear more separate as if looking through at the woman and the overlaying landscape is more definite, creating more distance between the woman and the viewer.

My final image from the exercise

Whilst influenced by Helen Sear’s work I decided to approach my image in a slightly different way – to attempt to evoke that sense of being temporarily absorbed in looking at something I have created whilst being surrounded by my outdoors environment. The viewer is looking at me whilst also being able to see what I can see if I look up.

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Overall, as ever, I found the whole process of working on layers quite absorbing and an almost meditative experience, entering into the images and seeing something different emerge. My further steps will be to experiment using an electronic tablet whilst keeping in mind that the layering needs to fit the concept.



Batchen, G (1999) : Ectoplasm: Photography in the Digital Age from Squires, C (Ed) 1999. P9-23)
Batchen, G (2002) Each Wild Idea, Cambridge, MA:MIT Press
Fontcuberta, J (2014) Pandora’s Camera, UK, Mack
Chandler, D. and Morris, S. (2012) Inside the view: Helen Sear. United Kingdom: Ffotogallery.