Calum Colvin: The Feast of Herod (1997)

Figure 2.44
Calum Colvin: The Feast of Herod

2.4 Faux Photomontage

We touched earlier on the remarkable work of Calum Colvin, who superimposes his rendering of masterpieces, mostly housed in the National Museums of Scotland, over the corner of his studio room with whatever lies in it. Figure 2.44 is a section of "The Feast of Herod," which "projects" a remake of Rubens' painting of that name into the same corner of the room that we see in "Venus Anadyomene," complete with split pane window, and here, wall-mounted shelf units. Colvin goes one step beyond Goldring's projection onto preshaped scrims: the remake is painted onto the furniture and objects and the whole array is photographed from the precise point that the project gives an undistorted image. This is quite tricky, for the painting and its remake are flat surfaces (representing figures in space) but they are projected in this scheme onto space that is not only highly irregular but to various degrees and ways concave. The positive curvatures and volumes of the represented figures is laid into and over planes at all angles and cavities.

It is unlikely that viewers have much experience decoding the resulting visual cues. The effect very broadly is as with standard photomontage: the mythological or Biblical scene appears to be copresent with or to inhabit the rather shabby, messy and cluttered space of the contemporary room. The represented scene is a very powerful attractor of the eye and one must struggle a bit to see the wildly assorted collection of things which it regroups, as it were, into the scene. We alternate between seeing the scene in its fullness and seeing it collapse into wierly painted furniture and interior.

Colvin is not trying to fool us; in fact, he gives us aids to seeing the result. Here, for instance, is the graphic from his opening page which exposes the making of Venus Anadyomene:

Calum Colvin: Homepage  illustration

Figure 2.45
Calum Colvin: Studio shot

Here we view from slightly behind and below the big view camera and to the left of the main light source, the bounce umbrella flood. It gives strong indication that the oval glass resting in the center of the vanity is a mirror (but does not show us the location of image of her face that it is reflecting). So does this help you to grasp the image? Similarly, with the Feast of Herod, there is a great deal of detail crammed into a very small reproduction, and Colvin provides two little videos zooming in and panning around the scene and showing himself moving around the "set" adjusting things, lighting the candles, and so forth. Just as Parada puts her stereoviewer on display to help with the spatial analysis of her "Two Thousand Years" image and shows the components of some of the others, so Colvin shows that his space can be physically entered and experienced via movement.


2.5 Photo Illustration

From its origins, photomontage has had a close and well-documented relation to advertising and also to fashion photography; some (notably Klutis, Buchloh shows) even maintained that American advertising and movie publicity were a major stimulus for the Dadaists. Others have noted a rapid adoption and extensive commercial use beginning in the 1930s (Naomi Rosenblum). Its general tendency to project an imagined world served and serve the purposes of fashion and advertising very well. Such images depict the product in an atmosphere of yet to be realized desire.

And so it is not surprising that it is scarcely recognised in the area of information graphics. Peter Wildbur and Michael Burke devoted a couple of pages to it in Information Graphics, Chapter Two, saying that it has its uses (with an example of an acid-rain cycle) but that photocollage is much more common (example of a scene with broken-out sub-pictures).

Dung Hoang: Dark Matter, in Discover and altpick.com

Figure 2.46
Dung Hoang: Illustration of Dark Matter in the Universe

Wildbur and Burke's generalization is valid only if the range of "Information Graphics" is kept to the High end of the scale (say, for journals, Scientific American and up). Science popularization magazines such as Discover use photomontage quite a bit, especially for topics that are hard to photograph or diagram (Borderline Personality Disorder, Dark Matter, Will to Dominate, Migraine Headache). With such topics the merging of multiple layers each depicting an aspect of the phenomenon or concept directly represents the incompleteness of our understanding, and the effort of seeing the image parallels the struggle to understand the topic.

Jennifer E. Fairman: Family Tree (Alzheimer's)

Figure 2.47
Jennifer E. Fairman: Family Tree (Alzheimer's)

The visual richness and complexity of Photoshop layering readily produces a surplus of signification that we associate with art. Figure 2.47 is entitled "Family Tree" and it occurs in the context of a treament of Alzheimer's disease and its inheritance. The image evokes the old "spirit" photographs with which we began this very long chapter, and the faces, especially those up in the clouds, seem not only remembered but of the departed. The tree of dendrites is thus a cable that links the individuals by the diseased cells they have inherited. It is a fatal tree, though it is the tree of their lives as well. It neither celebrates (as a spirit photograph would) nor bemoans the portion allotted the family. There is now emerging a term of art for this sort of use of Photoshopmontage:

Photo Illustration: A type of computer art that begins with a digitized photograph. Using special image enhancement software, the artist can then apply a variety of special effects to transform the photo into a work of art.

- - Lycos Tech Glossary

Strictly speaking, this definition is not quite that of photoshopmontage, since it emphasizes manipulation by filters rather than merging of images, and some photo illustrations only use one source image, but the montage type is probably the most common. When used in a publication, the term is coming to have the rather exact sense of "manipulated image." It is said that Matt Mahurin's famous darkened image of O. J. Simpson on the cover of Time should have been so identified, and in the context of Mahurin's other "portraits" it clearly is the work of one who manipulates the image. 4 But of course it was not in the context of Mahurin's other work.

In very many cases, however, it is clear that the image has been manipulated, and more uncertainty attaches to whether source photographs have been used. At that point, we look for the excess of detail that we associate with photographs (vs. drawings or paintings), and where we think we find it, the image reestablishes a link to real people and things in the world. The situation is anything but binary (manipulated vs. straight): even within the frame of a single image, some regions may be closer to the output of a camera than others. An intriguing instability can thus arise as we look for signs of digital "inscriptions." And just a photo illustrations loosen the bond to the camera image, so they loosen the relation to the words of the text they illustrate.


In terms of cultural prestige, however, such illustrations are still second class, since the concept or issue is set for the illustrators and they are not free to critique or satirize the topic or issue or the thinking it represents. And they are second class because they are not exhibited as art, or reviewed and discussed as art; typically they are mass reproduced, delivered, and thrown away. Of course there is nothing to keep illustrators from illustrating a poem or story of their choice (would that be illustration or art?), and indeed a number of these artist/illustrators seem to prefer to illustrate a text or concept even when doing art for its own sake (i.e., with no contract in view). 5 They work on Tarot cards, magic, myth, and fantasy worlds, giving their images long quasi-narrative titles like "The Act of Not Writing" (Catherine McIntyre) and include text within, beside, and between their images that blithely ignore the strictures of Modernism.

Catherine McIntyre: Opiates

Figure 2.48
Catherine McIntyre: Opiates

Catherine McIntyre is a young Scots illustrator/designer/artist whose site is mainly devoted to showing her art works (which are of the Myth, Magic and Other World variety). She does include a "Commercial" section with six images presented with "concepts" but no business details. Although her art uses images of the naked female torso (including apparently her own) heavily, the commercial work concentrates on heads and all are fully clothed; semiotically, they are straightforward. (Topics: opiates, the creative brain, multiple personality, the creativity of play, the internet, telepathy). Straightforward does not necessarily mean easy; the topics with "creative" in them are abstract and do not bear many standard images with them. (And I find them the most enigmatic). The image to the left bears the title "Opiates" on her site; we might suppose it to be a "theme setting" image for an article. The soft focus and softly shadowed, expressionless face and eyes suggest one with opiates in her bloodstream, especially in contrast to the syringe which is in foreground and hard focus ("high modality," a la Kress and van Leeuwen): the syringe is what is real. The face, not part of a body in any recognisable physical location, may be an apparition which is seen by the viewer through the agency of the syringe, an Alter that you meet. This is where the imagery of Myth and Magic can be seen. Many of the figures featured on Magic cards stare directly at you--which is not something we encourage or allow or expect flesh and blood people to do. The suggestion of the uncanny power of opiates, though certainly not original, is quite successfully made visual.

Catherine McIntyre: Multiple Personality

Figure 2.49
Catherine McIntyre: Multiple Personality

This illustration of "multiple personality" is equally straightforward, indeed, almost hackneyed in its three heads in one body image. The faces seem to be of the same individual (though with different expressions) and different degrees of "presentness:" the one facing from the left is very soft-focused (mostly) and the one from the right has a refraction displacement running through her left eye, suggesting that the overlaid rectangles are some sort of glass plates and thus establish a muted imagery of planes or levels of cleavage within the personality. They also suggest why the lighting, though quite directional in places, is not straightforwardly all coming from over the taker/viewer's right shoulder. The picture seems printed on rather distressed old paper (there are a number of Photoshop filters for that!) and sepia-toned, but there is no serious effort to attempt a true fake antique photograph--there is much too much green and blue in there for that--and so the result is that none of the components are true images. The central, presenting figure is not meeting your gaze, though the ones peeking flirtatiously around her are. Not bad for a medium that is said to be only able to record what is there! Before leaving McIntyre's illustrations, we must note her fine piece on telepathy that nicely undoes the standard Saussurean diagram with facing heads (the one that keeps reappearing in Kress and van Leeuwen (1996)). I especially like the blurring of the symbols as they appear in the mind-space on the right: apparently telepathy is a little lossy.


In her art, McIntyre makes much use of layers, blends foreground and background into evocative, mysterious, "spiritual" Dreams and Nightmares (titles of her two main Web exhibits: intangible and now a new book (Deliquescence, also the name of a transitional state). Her general titles hark back to the Victorian sense that things with gradient edges and varying opacity must be subjective or mental (dreams, apparitions, memories) or literary and mythological. She also uses a restricted, muted palette, which points away from realistic modality, and the images glow with uncanny light. We are here on the edge of fantasy illustration. McIntyre's backgrounds are done with special richness and care, often evoking antiquities and ruins, bones, old photographs and letters, postal stamps and cancellation marks--all of these working out themes of aging and decay under the forces of nature and industrialization, about which she is quite explicit. (The handwritten bits of text, stamps, and cancellation marks are of course staples of the cut edges school of photomontage as well, as for example in Hannah Hoch, S. M. Moalie, Nick Bantock, and Joseph Cornell, of all of whom more elsewhere. In general, this tying of texts and images to actual moments of time in the past easily contributes some of the melancholy of old photographs. )

She also makes extensive use of the nude torso, almost always female, for reasons that she also spells out:

The nude is a natural symbol of the laying-bare of innermost feelings, and has been a continuing metaphor in my work. It can radiate well-being, or vulnerability and weakness; it can symbolise humanity's deepest essence, or that of the natural world; it can be idealised, realistic, grotesque, dismembered, impersonal, abstracted. The endless ways of representing the nude all carry with them resonances inevitably associated with the depiction of ourselves at our most unprotected. Images of the nude are impossible to ignore.
Catherine McIntyre: Biology

Figure 2.50
Catherine McIntyre: Biology

McIntyre does heads and she does torsos, but in almost every case, the torsos are headless. They thus avoid the problematic of the gaze, as they neither look at us or away. She also includes a link to the Creative Nude Photography Network (a sort of webring, but it works simply from a single master menu). I must say that none of the other sites in the CNPN excite nearly as much interpretive activity on my part.


(I forget)

Figure 2.51

So strongly does this combination of old masonry, reduced palette, and blending nude figure evoke the mythological, that Figure 2.51, the result of a programmer's working with Photoshop, seems positively disconcerting. Everybody knows spirits don't wear underwear. So is this evidence of the antiquity and ubiquity of the Haynes product line? (However, the very close viewer-reader will note that Ramsdell's lady lying at the feet of the Pantokrator for judgment also is pantied.)


Diane Fenster has ridden Photoshop to great success in the illustration business and has chosen to put very generous samples of her work, including alternative versions, for the last five years on line (I count 129 decent-sized images). This is an extremely valuable archive, for it enables us to see different tactics that she employs with different tasks and changes in her overall style over time. (Other illustrators with comparable ranges of topics and clients are Roy Scott and Jon Conrad.)

When the statement of the topic involves people doing or feeling things, she frequently makes an almost point-to-point rendering in the image. In general, she places human figures (especially head, upper torso, and hands) in the center of the decision-making scene, even when what is depicted is shame and loss of control:


Diane Fenster: High School Sports Hazing

Figure 2.52
Diane Fenster: High School Sports Hazing

Perhaps this is why her illustration for a piece on sports hazing in high school, with its severely muted, metallic colors and nothing human but a pair of gym shoes, is so eloquent!

One test of how effective an image is at conveying a concept or topic is whether you could tell with no caption or particular context what concept it is attempting to convey (though that task is one we rarely have to perform). I confess that Sports Hazing would certainly baffle me under those conditions, but this reflects its evocation by absence--not the strategy an illustrator usually employs. With some of Fenster's other illustrations I could make a fairly good guess, I think, as for example her "domestic violence," "date rape," and "teen drinking-driving" illustrations. A weaker test would be to match illustration and topic, and there I would think most people would be fairly successful, as long as there were no near-miss topics (i.e. related topics in a list longer than the list of images). The fact that you have to work a bit to understand what an image means, even with the assistance of a caption, does not of course mean that it should be judged ineffective. One might even admire the ingenuity of the artist in that case and attribute exceptional thoughtfulness to the illustrator, author, or editor. And one is probably moving away from a mass audience medium in that case. Indeed, the cases where I can guess the topic (e.g. domestic violence) probably depend on my knowledge of common depictions in the media. The more interesting ones that do not so readily yield their meaning. In any case, Diane Fenster shows us that photomontage, though given to quasi-identities, blurs, and mergers, can be used to illustrate a wide range of fairly analytic propositions.

Given what we have said about photomontage as tending to merge and blur entities, rather than distinguish them and map their relations, the narratives and causal sequences we find in illustrator photoshopmontage require some explanation. 6 We see in Fenster and most of the other illustrators the projecting of a more abstract space, so that the question of how these several things can inhabit some portion of "our world" falls away along with the sense that the image is a photographic print. Photography provides the materials‘the hands and faces‘but even these are subject to considerable photomanipulation. This more abstract space can contain words, arrows, lines, and other graphic devices and would seem to provide one location for William J. Mitchell's textimage in a fairly undifferentiated state.

Chapter 11: Growing Up, Growing Older, Growing Wiser

Figure 2.53
Diane Fenster: Chapter 11: Growing Up, Growing Older, Growing Wiser

Not only is there no background world or frame, but these images are frequently partitioned into parts or zones, with fuzzy borders to be sure, but rather clearly distinguished by color where outline is soft. At times, Fenster goes beyond the simple three or four zone partitionings to attempt more elaborate articulations, as for example her illustration for Chapter 12 of the psychology textbook "Psychology over the Life Span: Growing Up, Growing Older, Growing Wiser." Here she traces the ages of man from foetus to present, balding, wiser self, indicating family of origin, time, the coding of it all in the neurons of the brain, and the great engines of life, male/female and sperm/egg. Granted, no novel or contrary theories are being put forth in this image, but in both scope and detail it is a rich image.

The work of these illustrators makes it very clear that Photoshopmontage has severed the bonds that tied it to cameras, negatives, and a view, with vanishing point, of the world. Similarly, all the pieces--the faces, hands, clocks, and so on--that presumably began as selections from photos have become signifying tokens in their own right. The hands and forearms and heads do not seem cut off from their bodies and we do not ask how they got there or what they are doing there, for the "there" is scarcely spatial at all. Fenster, like almost all makers of photomontage, keeps an archive of favorite parts and pieces, and recombines them in other images, so that they become like words being used in different sentences. That is why they mix so easily with symbols and words. It is not too surprising to see surrealists like Magritte use objects in this way (as tokens of generic objects, as it were), but the photographic image is strongly tied to the particular object upon which the light fell in this exact way, time, and place. One might argue that a master blender like Jerry Uelsmann's work, makes the most of a fierce tension between a hard-focus, no fudges, full light of day black-and-white realism and the impossibility of what we are shown; photoshopmontage cuts that referential tie to the world by ceasing to insist "this is a photograph."

Naomi Rosenblum, in her World History of Photography, speaks of the identification in the the 1950s and 1960s of photomontage with the expression of subjective experiences and the exploration of psychoanalytic themes, linking Laughlin, Teske, and Uelsmann with a few other influential figures. This remains an option in photoshopmontage, as can be seen in some of Diane Fenster's explorations of inner space to be found on her art site. Her use of the suffering body to convey "Environmental Effects on Breast Cancer Rates" is also in this fusing mode, and is quite remarkable as an illustration of a public issue.

Conclusions: The key to photomontage is that it involves the heightening of appearances as registered through a camera or cameras by superposing one or more images over another.

  • Photomontage is not an analytic procedure; it blends objects rather than distinguishing them and may obscure their spatial relations.

  • It is not oriented toward the way something looks or looked on a particular occasion (i.e. it does not aim toward representing some part of the generally observable world); rather, it synthetisizes the way something might look or could be imagined to look.

  • Overlaid layers can be distinguished in some cases with effort, but artists are well-advised to provide assistance in the recognition of layers if their perception is critical to understanding the work.

  • Reduced opacity is reduced material presence in the depicted scene;

Many artists using Photoshop comment on the paradox of technical, mathematical, painstaking and sequential skills and procedures needed for mastery of Photoshop and its function as a tool for exploring the "beyond what you see through camera"— for, that is, expressing the most romantic and subjective of contents, the only partially present, and that which the eye can see only with art. It is photography freed from subsurvience to what comes in the camera lens; it is at last "drawing with light."