Project 2, Exercise 2: Re-contextualising images

John Heartfield

  • Born Berlin 1891 as Helmut Herzfeld but anglicized his name during WWI in response to anti-British sentiment in Germany.
  • Politically active, a proponent of Dada and an originator of photomontage as a means of artistic and political expression. Also built theatre sets for Bertolt Brecht.
  • Fled Berlin for Prague in 1933 to avoid arrest by the SS after sustained criticism of the Nazi movement. Fled Czechoslovakia in 1938 when the country was invaded by Germany.
  • Lived during WWII in Britain and returned to Berlin in 1950 where he was viewed with suspicion by the East German government. Died 1968.
© 2016 Heartfield Community of Heirs. All Rights Reserved.

© 2016 Heartfield Community of Heirs. All Rights Reserved.

Peter Kennard

  • Born London 1949 and based there. Artist and academic at the Royal College of Art.
  • Politically-active in left-leaning causes, turned to photomontage as a means of expression. Produced work in support of the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament.
  • Uses more modern photomontage tools (Photoshop) than were available to Heartfield (scissors and glue). As a result, some of his pieces are mistaken for "real" images and the potential for the image to affect perception of a mass audience can be heightened. A more deliberate effort to affect not only public discourse but perceptions: "We were trying to portray Iraq as it happened and not wait until afterwards and make a history painting" [The Guardian].
"Photo Op" by kennardphillipps/Reuters. 2005.

"Photo Op" by kennardphillipps/Reuters. 2005.

Hannah Höch

  • Born 1889 Gotha, Germany. Died 1978 Berlin.
  • Became friends with Raoul Hausmann, a fellow-participant in the Berlin Dada group and with him became a pioneer of photomontage.
  • A strong advocate for contemporary women artists, she seems to have been undervalued by many of her male colleagues in the artistic community. Her photomontages often criticized the fashion and beauty industries, as well as the ideal of the Weimar New Woman, and frequently challenged gender roles by fusing images of male and female bodies.
  • Her work appears to be just as political as Heartfield's, although small "p" political rather than partisan. Her technique is also rougher, in that the components of her images are often torn from papers or magazines rather than being neatly cut with scissors. Her images are very abstract and distinct from Heartfield's—often bizarre—"realism".
  • Höch's works were seen as "degenerate" during the Nazi period and seldom shown. Although she was freer to exhibit after the war it seems that she never achieved the same degree of attention.
Hannah Höch,  Self portrait .

Hannah Höch, Self portrait.

Martha Rosler

  • Born Brooklyn, 1943.
  • Works in video, photo-text, installation, and performance, as well as writing about art and culture. Rosler’s work is centered on everyday life and the public sphere, often with an eye to women's experience. Recurrent concerns are the media and war, as well as architecture and the built environment, from housing and homelessness to systems of transport. [Wikipedia].
  • Influential artist, lecturer, professor and writer.
  • “My art is a communicative act,” Martha Rosler says, “a form of an utterance, a way to open a conversation.” []
  • Her work is reminiscent of Kennard's and the two share an interest in protesting warfare. Whether it is coincidence or whether Kennard's 2005 image was influenced by Rosler's piece from the year before, each has produced a photomontage named "Photo Op" (above and below) depicting an individual taking a cellphone selfie, oblivious to the scene of fiery destruction behind them. Kennard indicts Tony Blair for the UK's role in Iraq, while Rosler broadens the critique to include a non-politician too caught up in her comfortable surroundings to notice the bodies behind her and the armoured tank outside in the garden.
Martha Rosler . Photo Op , 2004

Martha Rosler. Photo Op, 2004

II. A recontextualised image of my own: Discover unspoiled Iceland!

I'm happy with the results of this collage because I was able to create what I had in mind and I believe it expresses my idea well. I have created meaning through the use of exaggeration of a real situation, which is the impact of ballooning tourism on Iceland's small and fragile ecosystem. Although the text in the collage may not be strictly necessary, I wanted to be sure that the ironic line made the point difficult to miss. Iceland—and especially its international airlines—are marketing the country heavily as an unspoiled place of wild beauty. The more successful these efforts are, although they are crucial to the country's economy at the moment, the less likely Iceland will be to remain beautiful.

Although all of this is a bit heavy-handed, I think it is in keeping with the approach of artists who work in collage or photomontage. What seems to vary, however, is the extent to which the artist attempts to create work that is "realistic." Kennard's Photo Op comes close to photorealism—close enough that some viewers were inclined to believe it was a real photograph (although this may have happened because they were predisposed to think the worst of Tony Blair). Rosler's Photo Op, on the other hand, is unlikely to be mistaken for a real image for a number of reasons: the repetition of the female figure, the positions of the bodies behind her, and the strange mixed lighting throughout the scene. It looks artificial and this is clearly Rosler's intent—perhaps the artificiality of the image underlines the artificiality of a lifestyle that encourages preoccupation with appearance and self, while ignoring the damage around us.

Collage is a powerful tool for creating images and lends itself to communicating a political message ("political" in the broadest sense of the term). It takes existing graphic elements and rearranges them in a way which can be deceptive or plainly incongruous—almost as if holding up fragments of the given world and showing their brokenness or contradiction. They can take what is "real" and show it to us in all its reality or unreality. It is a tool that was born in modernity, with the photograph and high-speed printing, and perhaps for this reason it is ideally suited for protest and criticism in the era of mass communication. The Dadaists were onto something.