What Is a Photomontage in Art ?

Compositions Composed of Collaged Photographs

© 2006 Hannah Höch/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Hannah Höch (German, 1889-1978). Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 1919-1920. Photomontage and collage with watercolor. 44 7/8 x 35 7/16". Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie; © 2006 Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin

Photomontage is a type of collage art. It is composed primarily of photographs or fragments of photographs in order to direct the viewer's mind toward specific connections. The pieces are often constructed to convey a message, whether that be a commentary on political, social, or other issues. When done correctly, they can have a dramatic impact.

There are many ways that a photomontage can be constructed.

Quite often, photographs, newspaper and magazine clippings, and other papers are glued onto a surface, giving the work a real collage feel. Other artists may combine photos in the darkroom or camera and in modern photographic art, it's very common for the images to be created digitally.

Defining Photomontage Through Time

Today we tend to think of photomontage as a cut and paste technique for creating art. Yet, it really got a start in the first days of photography as art photographers played with what they called combination printing. 

Oscar Rejlander was one of those artists and his piece "The Two Ways of Life" (1857) is one of the best-known examples of this work. He photographed each model and background and combined over thirty negatives in the darkroom to create a very large and detailed print. It would have taken great coordination to pull this scene off in a single image.

Other photographers played with photomontage as photography took off.

At times, we saw postcards overlaying people in far off lands or images with one head on another person's body. There were even some mythical creatures created using various techniques.

Some of the photomontage work is obviously collaged. Elements retained the look that they were cut out of newspapers, postcards, and prints, which many were.

This style is a very physical technique.

Other photomontage work, such as Rejlander's, is not blatantly collaged. Instead, the elements are blended together to create a cohesive image that tricks the eye. A well-executed image in this style makes one wonder whether it is a montage or a straight photograph, leaving many viewers to quiestion how the artist did it.

Dada Artists and Photomontage

Among the best example of truly collaged photomontage work is that of the  Dada movement. These anti-art agitators were known to rebel against all known conventions in the art world. Many of the Dada artists based in Berlin experimented with photomontage around the 1920s.

Hannah Höch's (German, 1889–1978) "Cut with a Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany" (1919–20) is a perfect example of Dada-style photomontage. It shows us a mixture of modernism (lots of machinery and high-tech stuff of the period) and the "New Woman" through images taken from the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, a well-circulated newspaper at that time.

We see the word "Dada" repeated many times, including one just above a photograph of Albert Einstein on the left side. In the center, we see a pirouetting ballet dancer who has lost her head, while someone else's head levitates just above her lifted arms.

This floating head is a photograph of the German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945), the first woman professor appointed to the Berlin Art Academy.

The work of the Dada photomontage artists was decidedly political. Their themes tended to center around protest of World War I. Much of the imagery was sourced from mass media and cut into abstract shapes. Other artists in this movement include Germans Raoul Hausmann and John Heartfield and the Russian Alexander Rodchenko.

More Artists Adopt Photomontage

Photomontage did not stop with the Dadaists. Surrealists like Man Ray and Salvador Dali picked it up as did countless other artists in the years since its debut.

While a few modern artists continue to work with the physical materials and cut and paste together compositions, it is increasingly more common for the work to be done on the computer.

With image editing programs like Adobe Photoshop and immeasurable sources for imagery available, artists are no longer limited to printed photographs.

Many of these modern photomontage pieces boggle the mind, stretching into fantasy in which artists create dreamlike worlds. Commentary remains the intent for many of these pieces, though some are simply exploring the artist's construct of imaginary worlds or surreal scenes.