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  • The Alchemy of Photography: “Grotesque Realism” and Hybrid Nature in Jerry Uelsmann’s Photomontages
  • Shun-liang Chao (bio)

[B]elieve me, photography is alchemy, it is magic.

—Jerry Uelsmann, “Some Humanistic Considerations of Photography” (1971)1

[L]et him alter, change, transform, and metamorphose himself into a hundred various shapes and figures.

—François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, book 3, chapter 12 (1994; in French, 1546)2

When Joseph Niépce, William Talbot, and Louis Daguerr invented photography in the first half of the nineteenth century, Edgar Allan Poe was amongst those who were quick to glorify the technology as the “most extraordinary triumph of modern science”3 not least because it outperformed language in reproducing the world as perceived by the corporeal eye. Nevertheless, some like Charles Baudelaire were not so enthusiastic about the mechanical reproduction of nature. In his Salon de 1859, Baudelaire, albeit extolling Poe as one of his literary beacons, stigmatizes the recent invention of photography exactly because its documentary power to literally reproduce nature contributes to the public taste for the true (le vrai) in such a way as to make beauty banal, monotonous, and cold.4 The taste for le vrai allows the artist to copy nature slavishly rather than to exert the imagination, “la reine des faultés” (the queen of faculties), and to paint what he sees rather than to plunge into the deepest recess of the soul to find “la sensation du neuf” (the sensation of novelty).5 In other words, photography is for Baudelaire anathema to the creative imagination.

To be sure, Baudelaire could not foresee that his call for le neuf sowed the seed of the European avant-garde movement,6 which questioned the means of representation with terms of reference to “relativity and the [End Page 301] subconscious rather than the recording of a surface literal reality”7 and which was to give birth to various experimental art forms, including Dadaist and surrealist photomontages in the first half of the twentieth century. Experimental photography, as a radical practice of manipulating the photograph, traveled across the Atlantic and during the 1960s in the United States became a legitimate school of photography, of which Jerry Uelsmann (1934–) was a leading light.

In the history of photography, Dada manipulations of the image, followed by surrealist manipulations, pioneered in the first half of the twentieth century in the use of photomontage to violate the documentary nature of the photograph. Robbing photography of its innate power to record visible reality, photomontage is a technique of assembling elements from individual photographs and makes itself “a handmaid of the grotesque,” a boundary creature of hybridization, owing to its tendency to shatter “boundaries more naturally than any other medium.”8 Both Dada and surrealist photomonteurs employ (grotesque) photomontage—in which separate parts are fused visibly and/or invisibly—to refashion the world, but with different purposes. Battling against “art as illusionistic, conjuring imaginary worlds” and against the enforcement of “a collective moral code,”9 Dada “denies itself the solace of good forms” (to use Jean-François Lyotard’s terms)10 through the practice of cutting, gluing, and patching together disparate verbal and visual fragments. For instance, in the best-known photomontages made in 1919–23 by Berlin Dadaists Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, who initiated experiments in photomontage in 1918,11 the sense of rupture and fragmentation figures pronouncedly as a historical response to the traumatic loss of totality in Europe after World War I and as an ideological attempt to vandalize political power like the Weimar Republic.12

Deviating from the suggestively nihilistic propensity of Dada, surrealist photomontage, primarily born of combination printing or doubling, allows the (con)fusion of materials without fissures to dominate and declare “the seamless integrity of real.”13 Surrealist photomontage strives to reorganize the way the real is perceived or indeed redefine real values in terms of internal models; it presents a dreamlike world that is veri-similar, “a liquid state of disintegration” in which things ebb and flow without regard for the “form that things are generally required to have.”14 Surrealist photomontage is amongst other uses of photomontage in the early twentieth century that, Graham Clarke...


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