Project 3 : The Found image in photomontage
I did most of the reading for Project 3 some time ago but have only just attempted the exercise. This was for two main reasons, both of which, put together, created quite a strong force-field to hold me back. Instead, I concentrated on completing the first assignment, getting out into the open air and away from the computer. The two reasons:-
- whilst I can envisage a project and the kind of photographs I might want to create I couldn’t imagine myself holding a concept in my mind whilst being able to select a variety of already created images from newspapers or magazines.
- I have felt exhausted; anxious and angry about the current political situation; the behaviour of some politicians and some of the vitriol unleashed on social networks and in the media. Having done so much talking and thinking about it, I didn’t feel as if I had sufficient energy left to start experimenting with something I didn’t think I’d have much ability to do anyway.
Eventually, being me and not wanting to think I hadn’t even tried, I decided to make the effort. I have extensive notes in my paper log so here I will just note aspects that particularly caught my attention. In retrospect I realised I needed to do the exercise to get a beginning understanding of the motivations and use of photomontage. In fact, experiencing my own reactions to what’s going on in the UK at present did give me an insight into the anger and frustration that can lie behind the cutting art of photomontage – what Kennard and Phillipps term “the visual arm of protest”.
The Dada Movement
Mary Warner Marien(2002) notes that photomontage/collage began with the cut and paste work of album makers and combination printing of photographers such as Oscar Reijlander but, “the anti-establishment photographic experiments that originated in Soviet and German experimental photography had different social roots and dissimilar social aims from these Victorian forbears (2002: 246). The Dada Movement, initiated by artists who took refuge in Switzerland during WWI, spread to Berlin and then to Moscow. The group objected to the War and to the bankrupt materialism of the age and they envisioned a new art that would express their despair and also sweep away tiresome conventions and intellectual barriers. The Dada Manifesto was written in 1918 by Romanian-born artist Tristan Tzara. The origins of the name Dada “seem to owe to a moment when two enthusiasts thrust a paper knife into a French-German dictionary and it pointed to the word “dada” or hobby-horse” (Marien, M.W. 2002: 242). When another group of Dadaists met in Berlin, as Germany was disintegrating, they adopted photomontage as a key medium, accentuating the disruptiveness of chance collisions of images and sounds. . They were more political than the group in Zurich wanting to make social statements and it seems that Hannah Höch and Ralph Haussman were two of the earliest Dadaists to create photomontages. Their work appeared at the first International Dada Fair in Berlin (1920) . Höch’s collage Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1920) was a cacophony of cut and pasted images and with the word “Dada” scattered throughout.
Hannah Höch (1889-1978)
There is a good selection of images on the Scaruffi website and, apart from reading a Guardian review of the Exhibition at the Whitechapel in 2014 , I found some interesting analyses of Höch’s work online in a Feminist Art Archive here .
Apparently she was bisexual, had a long affair with a (female) Dutch poet and a short marriage to a (male) German pianist and words and music often appear as a kind of backdrop in her work, ‘the landscape to her scissored figures’. Although she was accepted into the Berlin Dadaist group (and characterised as the It girl of that group for most of her life), Höch was not accepted as an equal. She commented, “Most of our male colleagues continued for a long time to look upon us as charming and gifted amateurs, denying us implicitly any real professional service” and also wrote a story The Painter about an artist filled with resentment at having to wash the dishes ‘at least four times in four years’, who is dismayed that women can be so little and still not be moulded or shaped. That thought really appeals to me. There is another quote from a note of hers regarding Ralph Hausmann in a Telegraph article here “If I hadn’t devoted so much of my time looking after him I might have achieved more myself” and so I wonder if her story was about him – and whether he knew that. I realise that I might be focussing too much here on her domestic life but it does appear that it was a constant battle to become recognised by the men in her circle.
Her work was anti-art ‘but quite energetically anarchic, tough and punchy yet always delicate. Höchs explored gender and sexuality, with montages making men into women and vice versa – often forming women in her pieces from dolls, mannequins,or children which were often thought of as unimportant in her society. In her 1930s series From An Ethnographic Museum she savagely ridiculed Nazi ideals of racial purity using pictures of objects in ethnographic collections with symbols of Modernism and fusing black/white, blue-eyed boys and dark-skinned girls. Kreibel (2009: 62) refer to a remark by Maud Levin on the effects of Hoch’s photomontages and “how they make evident that human hands have constructed the image, insisting on the artifice of assemblage and the infiltration of the symbolic order, denying the photographic rhetoric of unmediated access to the material world”.
John Heartfield (1891-1968
I found a useful website about his work here in addition to the recommended essay by Sabine Kreibel. Heartfield was baptised Helmut Herzfelt and legend is it that he anglicized his German name in the midst of WWI “to signal a brazen refusal – a cheeky rejection of the “spontaneous and irrational anglophobia that took hold of Germany shortly after the English entered the war on the 4th August 1914 (S. Kreibel, 2009: 59). Kreibel comments on the violence inherent in Heartfield’s work “…. The semantics of rips, fissures, gaps, hastily cut-and-pasted passages convey a rhetoric of savagery, issuing a disturbing psychic charge” (ibid p. 61). Photography and scissors were his weapons and he used the slogan Use Photography as a weapon twice both above and below a self-portrait that appeared in 1929 in AIZ a mass-circulation magazine that was communist in orientation. The self-portrait shows him apparently cutting off the head of Berlin police chief Karl Zorgiebel with long-handled shears following Zorgiebel’s prohibition of outdoor meetings and demonstrations after violent street clashes between and among communists, socialists, and National Socialists. This prohibition had then been extended to the May Day Marches, an annual working-class tradition. Kreibel points to the difference between the AIZ reproduction and the mock-up of the montage . In the mock-up you can see that the head is separate from the neck . Five months after the publication of this image, Heartfield used a different form of montage that relied on psychological discomfort. Whoever Reads Bourgeois Papers Becomes Blind and Deaf! (1930) portrays a realistic version of a man with his head smothered with newspapers. In the bottom right-hand corner there is a prose poem that contains the words “I am a Cabbagehead, do you know my leaves”. In German the word “Blatter” means both newspapers and (cabbage) leaves, so acting as a visual pun and transforming a nationalist Prussian song “Ich bin eine Preusse, kennt ihr meine Farben?” (“I am Prussian do you know my colors?”), into an indictment of the socialist picture press (Kreibel, 2009: 64) as, Kreibel also informs, through the uniform worn by the man in the image, Cabbagehead is coded as a socialist, “the community adversary”.
This visual evocation of the power of a newspaper also put me in mind of my thoughts recently on how, on the whole, people might only read a newspaper that affirms their own political point of view. This was reinforced when I read a recent article in the online website of The New York Times regarding social networking site Facebook’s continuing attempts to rebut accusations of political bias in its news content. The article refers to a recent document that details how its editors and computer algorithms “play roles in the process of picking what should appear in the “Trending topics” section of users’ Facebook pages”. I’ve also noticed articles appearing more often recently on post-truth politics – the notion that there might be facts but politicians create their own truths’ around them and dismiss alternative explanations as ‘opinion’ or biased. The recent Referundum events being an example of this.
As this post is getting to be quite length (and without any images for visual variety) I will move on to Exercise 1.3
Peter Kennard (1949-)
I remember seeing Peter Kennard’s work Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1981) at a V&A Exhibition on Postmodern photography a few years ago. Cruise missiles inserted into a beautiful pastoral scene and looking almost as if they belonged there.
Kennard began using photomontage as political protest at the time of the Vietnam War and he and Cat Picton-Phillips have been working together since 2002, initially to make art in response to the invasion of Iraq. In this interview they are talking about Photo-Op – the montage of Tony Blair taking a selfie against the backdrop of a volcanic eruption at a time when the decision to go to war in Iraq was made in the face of widespread public protest (I remember participating in a silent vigil in Woking town centre the night before). They felt the need to create something that reflected and validated this opposition and sentiments they felt weren’t reflected in the mainstream media at the time. They run photomontage workshops and their website offers free downloads to use personally or publically in visual protests (with a voluntary contribution to the International Solidarity Movement.
Their work continues but, so far, I haven’t been able to find much reference to other artists who currently use photomontage for political dissent.
Use readily available images to make a short narrative series of four to six collages based on a recent or contemporary news event
I began this post by describing my reluctance to complete this exercise. I had started to collect newspapers over several weeks though and a few days ago I sat down early evening and cut-out various pictures and captions that I thought might be useful. They still didn’t seem to form any patterns for me and, at one point, I even thought of throwing them up in the air and seeing how they landed. However, I had another look the next morning and put together three montages using newspaper cuttings, a banana skin anad some images downloaded from free-use sites. This was the most I did because I have an eye sight problem at the moment (a cataract in my left eye) so my eyes soon get tired. In fact I just about went cross-eyed at the cutting-out involved.
Two different versions – the one with banana skin being more of an upright mini-installation. I laid them flat for the second one. Post-truth politics was in my mind together with a short article I read A Woman Steps Out onto the Glass Cliff: Theresa May to Lead the UK referring to research that has found a tendency for women to be promoted in times of crisis and this ‘glass cliff’ harms the woman’s likelihood of success.
How a badly thought-out decision led to the unleashing of unexpected events, revealing what lies beneath an apparently democratic society. The first one was taken with my iPhone and I think it has more ‘action’ about it. The smoother look of the scanned montage doesn’t seem to have the same effect.
I have to say that, although I found this exercise difficult and it challenged my boundaries, I did gain reasonable understanding of how these montages can be effective when used appropriately. It also gave me some ideas as to how I can use them in the future that were reinforced when I went on to look at Stephen Gill’s work for Project 4 which looks at found images scanned and/or manipulated on-screen.
Kreibel, S (2009) Manufacturing discontent: John Heartfield’s mass medium, New German Critique 107, 36(2), pp.53-88.
Marien, M.W. (2002) Photography: A cultural history. London: Laurence King Publishing.