Case Study – Photomontage

Here is a case study produced in collaboration with Tom Knapp, another member of the Graphic Design group, whose blog can be seen by clicking on his name. The case study briefly looks into photomontage and how this art movement is relevant to the progression of Graphic Design in relation to the discourses we have been taught, which can be read here. As this case study had to be presented to the rest of the group, we created a PowerPoint presentation, from which I shall show a concise summary of our notes below.

Definition: “Photomontage is a kind of collage that is composed primarily of photographs in order to direct the viewer’s mind toward specific connotations. These photographs are glued on a surface.” Quote courtesy of Art History.


  • The Victorians discovered the amusement to be had from postcards of the wrong head stuck on a different body, or the creation of strange or impossible creatures.
  • The Industrial Revolution gave factory staff a week’s holiday to the now traditional seaside towns where photography was a popular attraction.
  • It was only following the “Great War” that artists began to see the use of photomontage as a truly new art form. The centre of this was Berlin, where a group of artists calling themselves Dada was looking for a new means of expression.
  • The politics of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s helped photomontage to almost a revival as much of the imagery at this time was designed for banners at demonstrations.

Technical Advancements

Photomontage is constructed of two main technological leaps:

Gustave Le Gray, The Great Wave, Sete, 1957

Combination Printing: A response to the problem of overexposure of the sky in landscape photography due to the sensitivity to the blue rays of the spectrum in the silver iodide emulsions used in the mid 19th century. The solution was to use two different negatives with different exposure times to be combined in one print. Early combination prints were labour intensive, requiring cutting edge equipment of the era. Eventually they could be mass-produced by letterpress or lithographic processes. With the filtering down of technology, it soon became a common practice for those who were interested to create their own photomontages. Link to image here.

Photoshop: Although this presentation mainly focuses on the first half of the 20th century mainly, it is worth pointing out the invention of Photoshop 3.0 and flat-bed scanners in 1994, allowed for far easier construction of photomontages of a greater complexity.

Realism vs. Illusionism

Photomontage is an illusionistic art movement, as many pieces depict fictional scenarios as though they are real.

One advantage of photomontage is that it can be used to juxtapose or overlay images, which could not be seen together in real life, adding a note of surrealism to the finished image. This is popular within the advertising industry to evoke specific moods which could not be achieved with a single image.

At the time of photomontage being invented, there was a lot of scandal when people realised that the phrase ‘the camera never lies’ was not strictly true. Examples of this included fake fairy photographs as well as ‘spirit’ photography, which was of interest to the Victorians wanted to see spirits of the departed as life expectancy was shorter with diseases. Nowadays these photomontages would fool nobody it would seem, but back then many Victorians still believed they were real. Link to image here.

Modernity vs. Historicism

Photomontage is a form of Modernism as the movement made use of contemporary technology and when led by the Dada, claimed to reject the past.

After all, the status quo had just produced the most devastating war in European history, and the artists, who had mostly spent the war years in the safety of neutral Switzerland, returned to Germany desperate to find ways of conveying the madness of the age.

As can be seen from the example image, photomontage often looked this way to highlight the quick changes and disruptions of modern life caused by the social progression that took place after World War I (1914-1918) and the Russian Revolution (1917). Link to image here.

Propaganda and Politics
Elitism vs. Accessibility

From around 1905, photomontage became one of the best ways in which political parties could communicate their message (propaganda).

A popular medium for this were postcards, as they were cheap, accessible, could be mass-produced and did not need words for a message, meaning the number of people who could understand them, especially where the population was poor and uneducated, was higher. An example of this is Soviet Russia.

Photomontage propaganda was used as a way of campaigning for the Russian Revolution and communism as well as campaigning against the ideology of Nazi Germany (as can be seen below for John Heartfield.) Link to image here.

Gustav Klutsis, We Will Repay the Country’s Coal Debt, 1930 (left) and Worker Men and Women: Everyone Vote in the Soviet Elections, 1930 (right)

Dada Propaganda (John Heartfield): He became a member of the Berlin Dada art movement as a protest to Germany’s current barbaric state and also joined the German Communist Party, developing photomontage into a form of political and artistic representation. Links to images here.

He used his art to protest the violent, greedy government control by the Nazi party. He took a satirical approach, condemning anti-Semitics and wealthy industrialists who supported the German army and protested the suffering of the many hungry and desolate people during WW II.

1980’s Propaganda (Peter Kennard):He took up photomontage for its ability to show the “unrevealed truth” behind the image. His two major subjects quickly emerged: armaments and poverty which were two hot topics in this decade. Link to images here and here.

Peter Kennard ‘Defended to Death’ photomontage

His belief at this time was that photomontage had the power to show the causes rather than the results. In recent times however, he seems to have had his doubts as now there is so much transformed imagery people accept them without questioning their meaning.

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