‘Use Photographs as Weapons’ On the Value of Photomontage

olive branch
Branch of Peace
Lewis Bush for IdeasTap

This is my final week as resident editorial artist for the creative charity IdeasTap. Over the past nine weeks I’ve produced a photomontage each week in response to events in the news. It’s been a great experience and I’ve had a lot of fun rediscovering a technique which was one of my entry routes into photography, but which I had entirely neglected in recent years. To mark the end of my residency I thought I’d put down a few thoughts about the medium, and argue that despite existing since the birth of photography, the true potential of photomontage is only being realised now, with the advent of digital imaging and mass engagement with photography.

Political photomontage is a medium with a huge amount of power, but it’s also one which comes with masses of baggage, and this I find is the biggest challenge to its use today. For older generations it sometimes remains a medium marred by its use as a propaganda tool by totalitarian regimes. For younger generations it’s often rightly seen an inherently political technique (a big claim, one perhaps to explore in depth another time), and the problem I’ve found with that is that this sometimes jars with the deep unfashionability of politics, and of generally holding strong views about anything.

This unfashionability has permeated into the art world at large and as the veteran monteur Peter Kennard has noted, it is very easy as someone who works with photomontage to be accused of naivety for expressing strong opinions about complex subjects. Yet artists have always been involved in, and forthright about, the politics of their time. Part of the reason we sometimes fail to detect this in the art of the past is because we stand outside the political context in which the work was originally made, as a result we struggle to read the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle commentaries or criticisms that the work implies. As a result it’s easy to suspect that art has always been apolitical, when it is the opposite. It is only in recent years that in Kennard’s words, art has allowed itself to be ‘abstracted out of the real world’.

The overtly political character of photomontage therefore makes it a continuation of, rather than a deviation from, the art of the past, but what is it’s relevance today? As Dawn Ades has noted photomontage belonged from the very beginning to ‘the technological world, the world of mass communication and photo-mechanical reproduction’. Nearly two centuries on from photography’s invention we live in a world which is more saturated with images than ever, and one where our emphasis on speed makes textual communication less and less appealing. Photographs instead stand in more and more for verbal communication, for example on platforms like Twitter and Snapchart, which emphasise brevity, ephemerality and the visual. To put it another way, we are primed to read photographs and ready to accept them as a form of free standing communication in a way we perhaps have never been before.

So given this readiness to embrace and read images, why use photomontage instead of, or as well, as traditional photography? Because despite the shared raw material, these two mediums are both capable of drastically different things. As I noted in an interview with IdeasTap, there are some things we simply cannot photograph. Many of the world’s most pressing concerns are ephemeral, invisible or unreachable, whether by accident or intent. Photographing the machinations of global finance or the casual relationship between human activity and climate change is a tall order at the best of times, but add to that the fact that companies and governments are ever more cautious of allowing press access to their activities and it becomes harder still. Photomontage acts on one very simple level as a way to visualise the things we can’t see or photograph.

But beyond its ability to penetrate the shady corners in which global power resides, photomontage has an ability to disrupt the images that these authorities use to represent themselves to us, appropriating the symbols that companies for example use to represent their undertakings, and displacing these into situations that hint at the true nature of their activities. As John Berger notes, the true power of photomontages lies in the way it disrupts these symbols, by extracting them from their familiar surroundings we can see that ‘the natural continuities within which they normally exist have been broken, and … they have now been arranged to transmit an unexpected message’. In this way photomontage has another power which straight photography invariably lacks, an ability to penetrate the surface of things and reveal the mechanisms underneath. This I think is the power of photomontage at it’s rare best, when, to paraphrase Berger, the appearance of things themselves reveal how they deceive us

View my photomontages for IdeasTap.

View more of my photomontages on my site.