And so we put him up against a wall:
A mother’s son, a man like we had been
And shot him dead. And then to show you all
What came of him, we photographed the scene.
–a “photo-epigram” from Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer. Brecht’s text is juxtaposed with a photo captioned, “The Germans were ‘kind’ to this Frenchman. They blindfolded him before he was shot.”
From “Postcards to the Front: John Heartfield, George Grosz, and the Birth of Avant-Garde Photomontage,” Andrés Mario Zervigón, in Postcards: Ephemeral Histories of Modernity, ed. David Prochaska and Jordana Mendelson.
Discussing Heartfield’s and Grosz’s subversive wartime postcards, however, is necessarily a speculative affair because none of these early works have survived. Equally vexing are the hazy anecdotes about the “discovery,” as it were, of this new avant-garde technique. Heartfield, for example, reported in a 1966 East German radio interview that the postcards had unquestionably played a fundamental role in what he described as the “invention” of photomontage. “In Moscow I told [Sergei] Tret’iakov about earlier works, which I made along with other people, and which led me to the path to the invention of photomontage–if you want to call it that. Those works were postcards which we soldiers–[or] not only I…[but above all] soldiers–[often] made to get their messages to relatives back home covertly, so to speak. They were glued postcards.”
A problem emerges, however, when considering the technique of montage as an artistic strategy with a clear political affiliation during the 1930s. The 1937 exposition [Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la vie Moderne, Paris] was a showplace of photomurals and photomontage. During the 1920s and 1930s, governments and artists of divergent political beliefs turned to photography to create exhibitions of mass appeal, from the displays designed by El Lissitzky for the 1928 Soviet Pavilion at the Press Exhibition in Cologne, to Giuseppe Terragni’s photomurals for the 1932 Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution. A critical void opened up when it came to the utilization of photomontage in the 1930s. The proliferation of the technique as a political tool made it impossible to distinguish political agendas solely on the basis of form.
–Jordana Mendelson, “Josep Renau and the 1937 Spanish Pavilion in Paris,” Documenting Spain: Artists, Exhibition Culture, and the Modern Nation, 1929-1939.
From Nancy Cunard’s These Were the Hours (1969):
To find covers for Henry-Music was no problem. They should be reproductions of the African scultures and carvings of which I by then had many. To do the covers Man Ray’s name came to me at once, for he had not only a strong appreciation for African art but for Henry as well…Surely one of the most striking developments in the arts of the twenties is photomontage, and of course Man Ray had worked for years already as a photographer and montagiste. His vision in taking and placing and, as it were, in “mating” various objects, was often supreme. I think the many African ivory bracelets of considerable age, and the other pieces so beautifully set together by him on the two covers of Henry-Music are another proof of this.
“Suppose we took a thousand negatives and made a gigantic montage; a myriad-faceted picture combining the elegances, the squalor, the curiosities, the monuments, the sad faces, the triumphant faces, the power, the irony, the strength, the decay, the past, the present, the future of a city–that would be my favorite picture.”
–Berenice Abbott, in Popular Photography, 1940, quoted in Changing New York
From Walter Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer” (1934), an address given at the Institute for the Study of Fascism, Paris (trans. Edmund Jephcott). On the revolutionary strength of Dada, he says:
And thereby the public was shown: look, your picture frame ruptures time; the tiniest authentic frame ruptures time; the tiniest authentic fragment of daily life says more than painting. Just as the bloody fingerprint of a murderer on the page of a book says more than the text. Much of this revolutionary content has gone into photomontage. You need only think of the work of John Heartfield, whose technique made the book cover into a political instrument…
What we require of the photographer is the ability to give his picture a caption that wrenches it from modish commerce and gives it a revolutionary use value. But we will make this demand most emphatically when we—the writers—take up photography. Here, too, therefore, technical progress is for the author as producer the foundation of his political progress. In other words, only by transcending the specialization in the process of intellectual production…can one make this production politically useful; and the barriers imposed by specialization must be breached jointly by the productive forces that they were set up to divide.
(book covers by John Heartfield)