First-ever exhibit of American photomontage is on view at University of Maryland, College Park


November 17, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Among the objects -- telephone, perfume bottle, purse, flowers -- in James Van Der Zee's "Her Cigarette" (about 1935) is the burning tobacco of the title, from which smoke rises to encircle an image from the unseen smoker's thoughts -- a lover, perhaps, or husband. In the companion piece "His Pipe" the objects are a man's, and the smoke from the pipe rises to encircle . . . her.

These are photomontages, because the images of "him" and "her" are superimposed upon the photographs of objects.

Will Connell's "Ginger Rogers" (1932) is a photomontage, too; Connell superimposed a photograph of the young star full-face on another of her in profile.

What is photomontage, anyway? In her show on the subject at the University of Maryland, Cynthia Wayne defines it as "the composition or joining of photographs from disparate sources, brought together to create a single image."

Van Der Zee's and Connell's images easily fit this definition. But, as the show makes evident, it's not always that simple. A photomontage doesn't have to be all photographs, but can include other elements.

In Herbert Matter's untitled advertisement for Saarinen chairs (about 1948), for instance, photographs of parts of chairs float across the page, all connected by a semi-abstract form in red, while a string of words forms a thin diagonal line at the bottom of the image. This is a photomontage that involves photographs, independent color and text.

Like the Supreme Court on pornography, it's easier to know photomontage by seeing it than by attempting to define it. And see it you certainly can in the 122 works of "Dreams, Lies, and Exaggerations: Photomontage in America."

Imperfect but challenging, this is the first exhibition devoted to the history of American photomontage. Organized and with a wordy but informative catalog by Wayne, acting co-director of the College Park art gallery, it is a credit to both the curator and her institution.

As she points out in her catalog essay, photomontage was developed in Europe in the early part of the century. It was employed by artists of dada, surrealism, constructivism and the members of the German Bauhaus, for purposes ranging from attacking the established order to searching for ideal form to reflecting states of mind.

Like so much of modern art in America, photomontage was given impetus in this country by practitioners fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s, including the Hungarian-born artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who had been a member of the German Bauhaus and became a member of the New Bauhaus, a school of art and design in Chicago.

To make the subject of American photomontage understandable, in both catalog and show Wayne divides it into six categories. Working with limited means, she uses one or two artists in each category as examples of the work done, rather than trying to include all the relevant artists. We begin with followers of Moholy-Nagy in Chicago.

Gyorgy Kepes (another Hungarian) shared Moholy-Nagy's ideals of uniting art and technology to create a new order; his experimental photomontages, such as "Bread and Light" are often at once beautiful and difficult to interpret. Another Moholy protege was Harry Callahan, but his images are far less esoteric than Kepes'. In such photographs as "Detroit" (1943) with its multiple exposures of cars, and "Collage, Chicago" (about 1957) with its many fragmented faces, Callahan explores the everyday to present an image of life in the modern city.

Perhaps the most familiar use of photomontage in this show, because it is closest to cinema montage, are the surrealist images of Val Telberg. Works such as "Portrait of Brodie" (about 1951-1952) and an untitled work from the series "Journey" (about 1954) present overlapping, seemingly floating images that conjure up dream states.

Hollywood used photomontage not only in films but in publicity and other aspects of the film industry. Connell's "Ginger Rogers" is a case in point, but much more imaginative are such images as "Sound" and "Still-Man" from a series he published in 1937 called "In Pictures: A Hollywood Satire." The little man of "Still-Man," burdened with camera equipment as he tries to find his way among a forest of giant legs, says a mouthful about the relative insignificance of the still photographer in Hollywood.

Inevitably, photomontage became a tool of graphic design, particularly advertising. Matter (from Switzerland), and Herbert Bayer (from Germany) used photomontage to help bring American graphic design into the modern world.

American artists used photomontage less than their European counterparts for propaganda purposes, but there were some instances of its use to convey a public message such as Alexander Alland's "Four Freedoms" posters (about 1941). Another "public" use of photography was in the murals popular in the 1930s, though many of them have deteriorated or been destroyed over the years.

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