Images and text by Clint Saunders
Photography is not art. It requires no skill or talent. Photographers are not artists. They merely capture what is in front of the camera by pushing a button. The art world hurled these criticisms at photographers for decades after photography was invented.
While photography was being criticized for its mimetic nature and lack of creative ability, some artists saw the creative potential of photography and sought to use it as a tool the way one would use a pencil or a brush. That is to say, they attempted to construct art pieces using photography as a medium. Artists such as Oscar Rejlander in his piece, Two Ways of Life (1857) combined photographic images to create art pieces, and the art of photomontage was born.
This would surely put many arguments to rest. As anyone could plainly see, this proved that photography could be used to construct images and not merely copy what was in front of the camera. It showed a tremendous amount of technical skill, creativity, patience, and knowledge. Combine these facts with the realism this new technique offered and it was easy to see how this would surely become the next great art movement, right? Wrong!
Rejlander and other photomonteurs were criticized for trying to “fool” the public. For nearly a century, photomontage was treated as the unwanted bastard child of photography. Photomonteurs received more distain from the art world than straight photographers. In addition to trying to fool the public, photomonteurs were criticized for doing nothing more than mimicking classical painting.
Photographers have long defended and struggled to validate their craft. Fortunately, after years of debate, that argument has been put to rest. While there are still a handful of critics who are unable to understand the true nature of photography as an art form, photography itself has been accepted by most of the fine art world.
Meanwhile, photography’s bastard child, photomontage, has resurfaced several times throughout history and been used as a medium in many art movements including Dadaism, Cubism, and Surrealism. However, it was never used as much or accepted as widely as photo collage, photomontage’s more attractive sister. Why? Perhaps its historical use in amusement art, propaganda, and advertising kept it from being taken seriously. Now, thanks to new digital technologies, we are once again seeing photomontage make headlines and fighting for its right to be recognized as fine art. However, photomontage is still battling the life long label of being a lower form of art.
Truth and Lies
“For some reason, photography has always been looked on as though it's recording a kind of truth. I realized this is very naïve; it wasn't doing that at all." —David Hockney
One thing that has always attracted me to photomontage is the perception of truth in photographs. With the birth of photography came the notion that photographs captured reality; thus, photographs must have an element of truth. “It must be real because it’s a photograph.” Right?
Photographs have been used as evidence in court cases as far back as 1839 when a husband photographed his wife in a tryst and used the photo to help win a divorce case. In 1861 William Howard Mumler used an accidental double exposure (a type of photomontage) to show proof of the existence of ghosts while beginning the spirit photography movement.[iv] Today people attempt to capture photographs of the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot in order to prove the existence of these mythological creatures.
I became a photomonteur both because photomontage gives me the creative freedom to construct the images in my mind and because I am fascinated by the prospect of creating impossible truths. I can create images that must be real because they are photographs, yet can’t be real because of the subject matter and juxtapositions within the image. Some would consider these artworks to be lies.
I believe this, above all else, is the reason photomontage has never been widely accepted and why photo collage has been treated with more forgiveness. People are afraid of being duped. No one wants to be made a fool, so they perceive photomontages as an attack on their intelligence. The viewer feels the artist is trying to trick them into believing something is real, when it can’t be. After all, photographs are real, they are truths, they offer proof, hence, the very act of putting multiple photographs together in a manner that disguises the edges is considered deceitful regardless of the artist’s intent.
The average viewer, and a large percentage of the photographic world, assumes that a photograph is real and a photomontage is a lie. They do not recognize that both are lies, or at very best, partial truths. In fact, in some cases, it could be argued that there is more truth in the montage than in the straight photograph.
In reality there is no truth, there is only perception of truth. Artists share their concepts, ideas, and perceptions of truth through their created and constructed artwork. The creative process is very similar regardless of medium. In truth, a good straight photograph is every bit as constructed and created and lacking truth as a painting, drawing, or even a photomontage.
The Picture Plane
There isn’t really a “look” or common style amongst photomonteurs. Many (such as David Hockney, the Dadaists, and the Cubists) preferred the look of collage for its fragmentation and its embrace of the two dimensional surface. While other photomonteurs such as Maggie Taylor and her husband Jerry Uelsmann prefer the seamless look of the photomontage and engage the picture plane through plasticity and three-dimensionality.
Digital methods, as used by Maggie Taylor, are being used to create both styles with or without the presence of the edge. Overlapping and blending create a fragmented, flat, cubist aesthetic while fully cutting out, assembling and unifying are being used to create more plastic effects.
The Next Great Art Movement?
Photomontage has been my passion since 1987 when I first began printing in a darkroom. I switched to digital montage around 2004, and while I still own my darkroom, I continue to work using digital techniques.
The techniques used in both the darkroom and digital montage are very methodical, tedious, and time consuming. While most would argue that automatism is impossible with a medium like photomontage, I still consider myself a surrealist. I keep notebooks everywhere--by my bed, in my car, in my suitcase, and on my desk. When a new image or idea pops into my head, I instantly write it down and make sketches. This is the automatism and creating from the subconscious part of the process. The rest is technical application.
While I’ve had success as a documentary and commercial photographer since 1999, my montage work has only recently been published and exhibited nationally and internationally. I have also noticed a significant increase in the number of artists creating in this wonderful medium in recent years.
I would like to think that this is the beginning of a new era in photographic arts-- an era during which photomonteurs are respected and admired for their brilliant artwork, technical skills, and creativity. I would also like to think that I, and my fellow monteurs, are on the front lines of this new movement and will go down in history as leaders in this new age. But of course, photomontage is not new. It has been evolving and growing for over 150 years.[vi] The tools have changed, but the principles are the same. So, if photomontage has a strong future in fine art photography, and I believe it does, then it could very well become the longest art movement in modern history.
1If you would like to learn more about Rejlander and other early photomonteurs, I recommend visiting photo historian Michael Pritchard’s website @ http://www.mpritchard.com.
2 For more on the Dadaists, Cubists, and Surrealists’ use of photomontage, I recommend visiting the National Gallery of Art (in person, naturally) or @ https://www.nga.gov as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (again, in person if possible) or @ http://www.metmuseum.org.
 David Hockney, On Photography, Andre Emmerich Gallery, 1983.
For more on these and other early examples of photographs uses as evidence in court cases, I recommend you visit the Evidence Photographers International Council website @ http://www.evidencephotographers.com/. You might also find The American Museum of Photography’s website interesting. Please see http://www.photographymuseum.com/index.html
 Eddie Adams, “Quotations,” Good Reads <<http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/photography?page=1>>. Accessed 14 November 2015.
 The University of Birmingham’s School of Theoretical and Historical Studies has compiled a fascinating database on photomontage and “fantastic” photography. If you find this topic of interest, you might wish to check out its website @ http://www.d-log.info/timeline/index.html.