The self-reflectivity of photomontage

In Merrill C. Berman’s collection of works that may be described as photomontage, one item stands apart. It is a small catalogue designed by the Dutch artist César Domela−Nieuwenhuis on the occasion of an exhibition of Fotomontage organized by the Kunstbibliothek Berlin and shown from April 25 to May 31, 1931. The catalogue’s cover is not only an example of photomontage−defined in the catalogue as “the artistic reworking of one or more photographs into a composite picture, often incorporating typography or color”−but a reflection on it. Within a dynamic black and white composition, photographs pierce the flatness of the picture plane. A pair of hands pictured at bottom left holds a pair of scissors poised to snip a photograph of an architectural façade. Tools —;a triangle, scissors, a tube of paint— appear scattered on the monteur’s work surface which, toward the top of the composition, melds seamlessly into a photograph of small-scale figures shot from above. Bound between converging lines suggesting the laws of perspectival recession that rule photographic representation, the figures seem to diminish in scale as they recede toward the upper right corner. A resolutely flat ground, perspectival recession, aerial photographs, smooth transitions, jumps in scale−Domela offers a catalogue of the photomonteur’s spatial options and formal mechanisms in this photomontage about photomontage.

The exhibition this catalogue accompanied was the first−ever to be devoted exclusively to the medium. Including over one hundred works by more than fifty artists, the exhibition sought to define the practice, to plot its history, and to present its manifold contemporary manifestations. While the exhibition is often cited in discussions of the medium as foundational, as laying the groundwork for synoptic considerations of it going forward, its interest, I would argue, extends even further. Dating from the Weimar period itself, this genre−defining exhibition was at once a self−reflective analysis, a historically specific event, and an active contributor to a field of production still unfolding.

Dzim Dollar
Aleksandr Rodchenko
Dzim Dollar [Marietta Shaginian] Mess Mend.
Issue 7. The Black Hand.

State Publishing House, Moscow, 1924

In the first half of the 1920s, the production of photomontage−widely recognized as a visual syntax synonymous with modernity, “a true child of our time” in the words of one critic−was accompanied by statements on the medium written by practitioners and by those close to them, who set out to explain its mechanisms and to extol its potential. Taken together, these texts−a selection of which are reprinted in the current volume −convey the sense that cutting out photographic images and recombining them, a practice as old as photography itself, had acquired a new relevance in the era of film and the illustrated magazine, and that this newly relevant practice needed explaining. If, as the cultural critic Walter Benjamin noted, in the age of mass-produced photographic imagery, it had become obligatory for photographs to be accompanied by a caption−“a surfeit of written information,” as one scholar has called it—the same conditions seemed to have dictated that the manipulation of photographic images be accompanied by verbal explication. The texts about photomontage that accompanied the production of the work itself constitute a parallel history that warrants attention in its own right. As the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has observed in the text that supplies this essay’s epigraph, the Weimar period produced commentary on itself that was “on a far more elevated plane of reflection, insight, and expression” than later cultural historians could possibly offer, and that to bypass this commentary would be to bypass one of the era’s most distinctive and salient features.