Duane Michals
series, item 2
series, item 3
series, item 4

Figure 2.24
Duane Michals: The True Identity of Man (a female version also exists)

2.3 Interpretation

This little sequence by Duane Michals doesn't quite say it all, but it certainly provides a start to the semiotics of photo-manipulation and photomontage. Assuming that we have picked out some objects and located them in scenes, we still need to account for why they are all placed together in one frame. Some of these very basic perceptions, such as those of edges, surfaces, and shapes, appear to be hard-wired and to occur without much guidance or interaction from higher levels of cognition, and hence can fool us even when we know we are looking at an illusion, but equally clearly this is not purely a bottom-to-top process, since we see what fits or makes sense in a frame and then correct or modify the frame in terms of what we see, so that interpretation interleaves and at some moments leads the scanning for detail. Each of these three dimensions has a general principle attached which we may briefly set forth as follows

  1. Reduced opacity links to subjective seeing.
  2. Soft outline links to identity of thing and person.
  3. Perspectival space links to representation of objects in a world like our own.
  4. Stacked planes link to history and process.

reduced opacity

Reflections may provide a school for seeing partially transparent images of objects, as suggested above, but the image we see is a virtual one; the object which is being reflected is behind us (in most cases) and facing the reflecting glass rather than facing us. The object is a full-fledged material one and we can turn around and see it; that is, it is fully present but not behind the glass. In photomontage, objects of reduced opacity are understood as seen in their proper place; they are not projected by some trick from some other place where they are really located and fully present. But they are not present on the same basis as other objects.

The common-sense lore about ghosts, visions, apparitions, and dream figures is that their insubstantiality is related to reduced opacity. The damned souls in Dante's Inferno recognized Dante as a mortal because he cast a shadow, but they did not. All of these manifestations are commonly psychologized and assumed to belong to the inward world of individuals. Solid things are what everyone sees--what you and perhaps you alone see is less publicly seeable, hence less opaque.

Recall the Rejlander image "Hard Times" from above. This is the paradigm for subjective seeing (which of course is shared with the viewer). The wife is sleeping holding a child while the carpenter sides lost in sad thought. The faint images of the man and his wife can be seen emanating from his head. They appear to be arguing, and so that faint exchange would seem to be his memory (since he is "turned inward") of their conflict. Here the title suggests the source of their conflict, reading the figure as exemplary of those who work with their hands (rather than enduring his own personal hard times).

It is important that the pasting be done so that the separate identity and space of the inserted photo is lost for it to appear as an apparition within the primary space. If instead it has edges, contrasting angle, focal length, tonality, it maintains its integrity as a separate image and is seen to be juxtaposed to the other image or jaggedly inserted in it; in this case the overall composition no longer seems to have a single space. The three-dimensional illusion is shattered and we have the flat surface effect of collage. (See next chapter).

Edmund Teske: Shirley Berman and Madison Grammar School Demolition, Chicago, 1938

Figure 2.25
Edmund Teske: Shirley Berman and Madison Grammar School Demolition, Chicago, (1938)

The figure of a reduced person (or head of person) against a fully opaque background was very attractive to Edmund Teske, who made many and many of these with an individual's head, usually a woman, or body (often a man) superimposed over a piece of landscape. Here we have both. This image is unusually complex for Teske because the background is significantly blurred and joins the ground uncertainly, due to the presence of a second diaphanous figure (who represents the Hindu god Shiva and recurs in a whole series of which this is one). The photograph is of much higher resolution than can be rendered on the computer screen, so that many small details that help to fix the scene of the school's demolition (such as individual bricks and rows of bricks) are very hard to see at computer screen resolution. As far as interpretation, one imagines Madison could have been his elementary school and Shirley Berman is also someone who experiences loss along with the reclining Shiva. Shiva may come from within the artist's mind, but he is a much more public part of the private self than Shirley B or Madison Elementary and serves to ascribe spiritual significance to a local incident. Worth noting are the strong vertical and diagonal lines that tie the parts of the image together and the shadow lines, one vertical down the center and one diagonal, running across the Shiva body and along the left check of the goddess Shakti.

Sierra Magazine: CA floods

Figure 2.26
Diane Fenster: California Floods

Diane Fenster uses the subjectivity signal in reverse in Figure 2.26. The image illustrates a prize-winning story in the Sierra Club Nature Writing Competition about the floods in California in 1997. I read the semi-transparent figure as the woman author writing out of her experience of the flood and the scene as it was experienced by her and conveyed in the story. Background and foreground are very close to merging; in fact, it is hard to say what exactly the foreground is. The writing, presumably the woman's (since she has that not-quite-all-there meditative look), overwrites her face, but the weather report may overwrite it, as it certainly does the wall and windows of the house. And where in all of this are the trees rooted? It is apparently an image of the world disordered, as experienced by the woman, and her face is the visual equivalent of a voice-over. (This same image, but with several figures in the middle ground, was planned for the "Personality" chapter of a Psychology textbook. The additional figures apparently represent "Social Influences on Personality.")

Drowned Phonecian Sailor

Figure 2.27
Diane Fenster: Drowned Phonician Sailor

Finally, the entire image can represent something imagined, as in Figure 2.27, which is another Diana Fenster image, taken from a set of six images of figures from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (Madame Sosostris, The Drowned Sailor, Phlebas the Phonoecian, Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant, Belladonna, and Tieresias), which she made for the Digitally Propelled Ideas Exhibit that she curated at Cal Poly earlier this year. These are Tarot cards in Madame S's deck. Several of them are unbalanced and seem to spiral out of the frame, creating an aura of carnivalesque disarray that is wonderfully suited to the poem. The lower background has a photographic image of ships plying a harbor from about the period of the poem.

Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)

frame from Grahame Weinbren's video Sonata

Figure 2.28
Grahame Weinbren: still from video "Sonata"


The fluid merging and fusion of these composite, layered graphics still carries with it the connotations of the psychological, and when the point of merging is a face or eye, the suggestion is strong that some sort of identity is being asserted. But what sort? This is the case even in the relatively simple case of the wolf-woman, and we might imagine the woman saying "In me as a part or alternative self or demon is a wolf" or quite a number of other things. The image confronts us with something strong, but it does not say exactly what.

El Lissitsky: The Constructor, 1924

Figure 2.29
El Lissitsky: "The Constructor (self-portrait)" (1924)

One famous identity image is the Constructivist El Lissitsky's self-portrait "The Constructor" (1923). The connotations of the various parts come thick and fast—the eye and hand of the artist, the drafting compass as constructive creation (following William Blake's "The Ancient of Days"), the circle as the most perfect shape, alphabetic letters (writing) as included in the work of drafting, and on it goes. Edward Tufte speaks of the various parts as "nouns" which he joins with verbs to claim exactly the sort of analytic syntax that we have been arguing is impossible:

Overlapping images express a multiplicity of links and metaphors: the mind's eye, the hand of creation, the coordination of hand and eye, the hand and tool, the integration of person and work, the wholeness of artistic creation—and, possible, even a halo for its saintly constructor. 3

Much of this seems plausible as an account of how connotations of the cultural code can be mobilized: in the context of a self-portrait of an artist, drawing instruments in the hand are tools of creation; the smooth integration of the hand and eye image suggests "coordination;" and the others are cliches and associations that spring readily to the well-read mind.

But Tufte continues, there is an actual syntax to the composition of the images:

By showing steps between the ideas in the mind to the reality of the paper, Lissitsky illustrates the process of graphic thinking and creation. Each visual bridge acts as a verb to link up the nouns (mind, eye, hand, compass, image, type, grid, paper) of artistic work. That work on paper then reflects back (via the pointing arrow) to eye and thought. The grid of the graph paper orders both worlds. (Visual Explanations, p. 141)

Personally, I don't find this graphic "saying" much of anything, and certainly nothing very specific or novel about the process of graphic thinking and creation. I hasten to add that I do find it very pleasing, but partly on formal grounds (the many arcs playing off against the rectilinear grid) and partly as a celebration of self actualization and mastery. Tufte is engaging in grammatical metaphor, which other critics also often engage in when writing of an image that is particularly striking and definite to them. Here is Graham Clarke on this same picture. After rehearsing contexts of Lissitsky's training as an architect and the social utopianism of Constructivisim, he continues:

But the title has larger reverberations, for this is literally a manifesto on the way we do not interpret our world so much as construct it (or have it constructed for us). It thus seeks a radical revision of our own terms of reference and, like a political poster, visually speaks out to a radical point of view.

And it goes on for a good bit more. A "literal manifesto" that "speaks out"—one may be excused for not having seen (or heard) all of that.

Alice Lex-Nerlinger: Seamstress, 1930

Figure 2.30
Alice Lex-Nerlinger: "Seamstress" (1930)

Here is another very similar portrait from roughly the same era by Alice Lex-Nerlinger, and, it may be, roughly the same politics, although there is a reversal in a sense of figure and ground: the seamstress at work is foreground, her happy, youthful face is background (even to the extent of splitting it with an extension of the work floor), perhaps reflecting the relative anonymity of her work product? Here again one senses the limitations of the graphic "syntax" of compositing. Just to say of these two pictures (and of the wolf-lady too) "these are all parts of my identity" sounds a little like an ad in the personal columns (which are mostly lists of attributes possessed and desired). Certainly much depends on the weight and centrality of some features over others. ("When and how often does the wolf theme predominate in your behavior and thought?")

Jerry Uelsmann: Self Portrait (1990)

Figure 2.31
Jerry Uelsmann: Self Portrait

Jerry Uelsmann's self-portrait (Figure 2.31) exploits the difference of hard and soft shapes. A sort of remake of The Constructor, it is based on a postmodern doubling: we view from over the photographer's indistinct and incompletely rendered shoulder (in which there appears darkly a full standing male figure gazing in our direction), and what we see, following his gaze, is a fully rendered sharp image of his face (we assume) reflected in a disc/mirror which however also looks like a camera lens. The sun-star both illuminates his hair and shoulder line and provides enough light reflected from his face to light up the mirror/lens. I do not think there is a camera or filter in existence that could shoot that close into the sun with this result—at least, not this side of Jupiter. If we see ourselves as the photographer (which we are invited to do), then we see ourselves indistinctly—implicitly as it were—except in the shot itself. It is not just a self-portrait of a photographer; it is a self-portrait of a photographer viewing an image of himself. This carries us toward the chapter on the Interaction of Subjects.

Barbara Morgan: Fossil in Formation (1965)

Figure 2.32 Barbara Morgan: Fossil in Formation (1965)

This piece by Barbara Morgan is about identity, but not of the personal variety. Note the reversal of the "object-over-scene" practice of making the object less "real" than the scene. Here the city is thinned, washed, fogged out, so that the effect of the superposed fossil is actually to darken the buildings, making them more substantial. With its title, it could be grouped under History and Process, below, but it has only two stages and is hardly a photograph of the future; rather, it strongly presents a wildly impossible and out of scale identity. Morgan liked the fossil and used it in other photomontages, and she had also tried out the "fossil over city street" combination with a different fossil; but nowhere as beautifully as here, where it achieves a visual fusion with the pulsing, flowing life of the downtown Manhattan street via the stream of light that seems intensified rather than diminished by passing through the stone, and where the intricacy of the street with its myriad chambers is matched by the intricacy of the fossil from so many millions of years ago. Metaphor is often spoken of as a "seeing as," and sometimes one speaks of mutual metaphor when each part seems to be transformed by the seeing as; both observations seem appropriate here: this is visual metaphor.

Sierra Magazine: environment and breast cancer

Figure 2.33
Diane Fenster, "Clearcut"

A recent pair of illustrations that Diane Fenster did for Sierra Club Magazine on the environmental effects on cancer rates picks up the Teske suffering body and makes it female. In these, a single woman appears in a blighted or polluted environment, vulnerably clad in a wrap from the waist down but shadowed so that only one breast is visible. (The other has been blighted, or is at least in peril.) In one sense, the body is female because the suffering is breast cancer, but she also becomes Mother Nature or the Spirit of the Forest, so that her injured body becomes one with the clearcut forest with its shattered stumps and debris. The image thus collapses the long sentence "Clearcutting of the forests has consequences for the environment that increase the incidence of breast cancer in women."

Val Telberg: Untitled (c. 1954)

Figure 2.34
Val Telberg: Untitled (c. 1954)

2nd version

Figure 2.34a
2nd version


One of the artists who most probed the limits of photomontage was Val Telberg. Figure 2.34, a typical Telberg, is very demanding and very intense. We see a large, partial figure in silhouette from the back, some other people smaller and further off, and one or two children coming toward the black figure. The space, however, is most disorienting with lots of cobblestone textures that do not recede from any point in the frame and that appear in place of the sky. There is a possible figure in the low foreground--we see possible breast shapes and teeth, but still cobblestones everywhere. Beneath this is a second version of this work. This adds a second silhouetted figure, clarifies the approaching children, reorients the cobblestone foreground for plausible recession from the viewer, and mutes the suggested female head from the lower foreground. The title of this version identifies the large figures as his parents (which adds remarkably little, as far as I am concerned). The figure of the suffering woman appears in a number of his other photomontages, sometimes with the suggestion that he is the agent of her torment. Such an observation would normally be out of bounds for a photograph, but Telberg work involves at least as much self-citation as Shakespeare's Sonnets. A further clue can be had by turning the first image upside-down . This gives us the correct foreground and a clear take on the cobblestone-teeth-breasts, which fall together remarkably well as a head and upper torso when viewed right side up, as it were (a more canonical orientation). (This series provides a bit of insight into a standard method of working in photomontage: the keeping and recombining of negatives.) So, in short, a good bit of spatial disorientation arises from the ground appearing upside down in the sky. How many negatives are involved in these prints? Quite an (indeterminable) number, it appears.

Val Telberg: Event in Golgotha (c. 1966)

Figure 2.35
Val Telberg: "Event at Golgotha" (1956)

The general tendency of Telberg's work is away from perspectival space, and his later work favors long, narrow strip formats and juxtapositions that seem thematically rather than spatially organized. One such is the ambitious six foot tall "Event in Golgotha" (c. 1966-70) which reaches from the earth upon which a woman lies through a complicated method of diagonal ascent past the scene of the "Event" and all the way up to Heaven, from which the doubled figure of the eyeless angel reaches toward earth.

Figure 2.36
Martina Lopez: Questioning Nature's Way, 2 (1998)

Martina Lopez has developed a method of placing old (monochrome) studio portraits in color, somewhat composited, landscapes. It exploits the development of color in photography and the marks of aging of prints to signal "old" not only by dress and hair styles of people in old portraits, but by low-contrast black and white (or sepia). The figures in their stiff, serious poses are placed in rather unnaturally colored constructed landscapes (sometimes also populated with other gray figures or period artifacts) which seems to represent the whole lives of the individuals, or events and moments the significance of which is known only to them. It may seem we are looking, as Barthes might have warned us, into the realm of the dead, the late 20th century version of spirit photography. The reproductions of Lopez's work on the Web are small and do not capture the scale of these photomurals (often 40 x 60 inches); the backgrounds frequently include numerous small human figures in bleak landscapes with turbulent skies; Brueghel's "Triumph of Death" or Max Ernst's "Temptation of St. Anthony" come to mind, though there are no torments being enacted, just the monumental stasis of the old portrait photography. But Lopez's monochrome figures are even less integrated into the landscapes; rather, they are dropped in without much regard for scale, they cast no shadows, and of course they have no color. The crisply edged figures are visual paradoxes, refusing to occupy the landscape and yet "in" it, as they might be in dream or in Hell. These landscapes seem to be made from contemporary (color!) photographs composited together, but also troubled in their barren desolation and tense lighting. The figures do not seem like ghosts or memories appearing in "our" world but as having undergone some weird temporal displacement.


Figure 2.37
Richard G. Ramsdell: 12/99

Richard G. Ramsdell exhibits photomontage from the last ten years on line. He discovered PhotoShop and color in mid-decade, and his works became quite large and complex. He sets his most recent work apart, and it does seem to constitute and new and more focussed body of work. In this set, he works with three layers in each case drawn from diverse points in history, including Old Russian art, the classic contemporaries of the last generation, and soft-core porn. Each stack is only three deep and he exhibits them with a caption identifying the components. For Figure 2.37, these are a Ukrainian icon, Hiram Power's famous "Greek Slave" statue, and a minimalist piece by Yves Klein. The individual images can easily be made out, and the chronological order does invite reflections of an historical nature; framing the naturalistic image between two abstract ones suggests the naturalism is an episode in a larger practice of representing woman.


Figure 2.38
Richard G. Ramsdell: 12/99

Here by way of contrast is another stack, this time using a 10th century ivory carving, a Rothko, and a piece of porn. Strikingly, the lady is the background over which the Rothko and ivory tablet are layered. This does not point us to chronology; rather the Rothko sets up a Heaven/Earth split, with the woman caught between them. And it is fairly easy to make something--or several things--out of that.

Ramsdell has set some formal restrictions for himself in this series which reduce visual clutter and complexity of seeing, but what he does use are highly wrought visual objects which may activate some knowledge and associations for the viewer. The result is a kind of tight interplay between the planes--an effect that is easily overwhelmed when PhotoShop's powers are ready to hand.


Figure 2.39
Esther Parada: At the Margin (detail of 83 x 139cm Iris print)

The tendency of layers to suggest a temporal/historical dimension has been developed by Esther Parada in her "2-3-4-D" series. In "At the Margin," (1991-92) for example, she layers the side of a bus, pictures of two contemporary girls with Pioneer scarves (only one of whom is visible in the detailed image in Figure 2.40), and a manipulated stereograph picture of a monument to Columbus in Trujillo City, Dominican Republic made in 1939, so that the monument images seem reflected in the side of the bus, but the girls also seem to be a reflected images, as if the whole thing is reflected in a plate glass window. Such attempts to naturalize the image as one photographed on any reflective surface are misguided, however, and Parada shows you the component images and tells you their significance and roughly how they go together, with the marginal women figures from the colonial monument picture becoming fleshed in in the Pioneer girls of contemporary Havana. The semi-transparent women from the past thus become an image of the past in the present, but as precursors, not ghosts.

John Berger, following suggestions by Roland Barthes, underscores the disconnection of the moment captured in an old photograph from the stream of time flowing through the present moment, but here, through photomontage, the past image achieves a visual synthesis with the present and thus is reinserted into the continuous current of time. The "2-3-4-D Series" includes several other rich photomontages superimposing colonial texts and monuments with present (1982) day Havana street life. See, for example, the discussion of "Native Fruits" in Chapter 2.


Figure 2.40
Annette Pugh: Seen Through

With the multiple layers of Parada's work, we approach a limit in readability for photomontage. In fact, we would exceed it were it not for the presentation in three panels with additional identifying remarks. In the same online exhibit with Esther Parada, Geoff Broadway, Diane Fenster, and Richard Ramsdell (Livewire--part of the National Photography Festival, [UK] 1995) appears several pieces by Annette Pugh, who says of her work,

Designed to be read on several levels these images allow us to catch glimpses of a past that continually repeats itself, and as our eyes adjust to the shifting layers we can delve deeper within and discover the underlying forms. Each layered image displaces the last, yet within one framework they become united.

While it is true that we can become quicker to discern faces and bits of city and harborscape in this image, and sort it into upper and lower versions of similar things (with two subsidiary strips running horizontally across the frame), my delving deeper has not yet led me to the "underlying forms"--I see more, but not enough to compose it into multiple worlds or scenes. They become united, but by flowing together, or melting down to something "abstract."

Nancy Goldring, At Work: Re Building

Figure 2.41
Nancy Goldring: At Work: Re Building

If too many layers at once swamps the eye, it becomes attractive to present them one at a time in succession. This is a solution pursued by Nancy Goldring and that is by putting it in and out over time—animating, that is, the emergence and transformation of objects. It would not be surprising for such sequences to be read as depicting historical processes; that would simply be reading them as narrative cinema. In fact, however, Goldring's pieces make their transitions with fade-dissolves--at least, the ones that she has put up on the Web as examples do that$mdash;and her descriptions of the pieces suggests they are to be viewed more as a succession of atmospheres or scenes rather than as sustained narrative sequences.

For some time, Goldring's two sample animations (and program notes) were the current exhibit at the digital art site DIF. Her exhibits start as literal slide shows and large-print photographs of these (30x40"); to make a GIF animation, these are drastically reduced in color depth and size as well as halved in number, and still the GIF animation is quite large. It is possible, however,to use a Java image fader applet to make the transitions on the spot, and to use larger images. One such result can be seen by clicking on Figure 2.42 (NB: slow loading and ram hungry).

Goldring has made many of these sequenced frames as slide shows. She shows us two in mini-animation form, one about about "examining and dramatizing" Viet Nam (At Work: Re Building) and one (At Home) that depicts "an enigmatic apparition in a small fishing village on the southern coast of Sri Lanka." Her program notes characterize these works as ones of views and appearances rather than historical events. Fade dissolves are of course very common in all kinds of presentation software as well as cinema, and probably do not necessarily convey by their form very much of identity, transformation, or emergence. To heighten the thread of likeness between frames, Goldring projects the pictures against a set of shaped screens and photographs them with masks shaped from the scenery, so that parts of the scene change and others remain constant from frame to frame. The resulting transformations of scene are very rich and intriguing; At Work gives the effect of time-lapse photographs of changing aspect, light, and season. For some reason, I do not think of a picture of a stage photographed scene-by-scene, although the changing effects of lights on a set of baffles and scrims provides a close analog to Goldring's methods.

Figure 2.42
Istvan Horkay: Goya VII

Istvan Horkay likes to layer figures and bits of text from different eras and nationalities. The bits and pieces are recognizable, however, at least with the help of the prompts in the titles of the works. The figure and setting of Figure 2.43 are made up of Goya's portrait of Don Osorio with Bronzino's portrait of Bia, the illegitimate daughter of Cosimo da Medici (who reappears in Joseph Cornell's famous "Medici Princess") layer over it, along with a Ralph Lauren label for Polo Chinos. In the background one can see an American flag with a protrait of George Washington. Horkay has a whole series with these American "logos" layered onto montaged images from classical European painting. The scene thus conjoins quite different eras, cultures and levels of culture in a quasi-space. The notion of appropriation comes to mind, but here the appropriation does not seem so much done to point out specific contradictions as to suggest that culture is the constant reappropriation of everything, currently culminating in pandemic Americanization.