Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch credit the "discovery" of the Dadaist technique of photomontage to a single moment when, in 1917 at an inn on the Baltic seaside, they encountered an oddly assembled portrait--the photographic likeness of the owner of the inn glued to the body of a soldier standing in the company of Kaiser Wilhelm, great German generals, and other nationalistic symbols of glory and splendor. With one decisive movement, the owner of the inn as a young man was transposed to a different realm, in the midst of patriotic pomp, endowed with a regalness matching the young Kaiser. The Dadaists were in turn inspired to appropriate this technique to create works of biting social critique through the juxtaposition of photographic fragments. Perhaps a more literal and familiar resemblance, however, to these early populist photocollages can be seen in the bizarre cut-out animations of Terry Gilliam for Monty Python's Flying Circus.
(Mary Georgiana Caroline, Lady Filmer (English, 1838–1903) Untitled loose page from the Filmer Album, mid-1860s, Collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints; 8 3/4 x 11 1/4 in. (22.2 x 28.6 cm), Collection Paul F. Walter.)
This art of photographic transplantation, before turned to revolutionary or comedic ends, has its roots in popular practice, and as one learns in the Victorian Photocollage exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, it originated in the drawing rooms of London society ladies in the 1860's. Not long after the invention of photography itself, these ladies took scissors to their cartes-de-visite photographs, extracting the portraits and arranging them lovingly into handcrafted watercolor and inked vignettes, inventing fanciful scenes involving their family members in unlikely forms.
(Georgina Berkeley (English, 1831–1919), Untitled page from the Berkeley Album, 1867/71, Collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints; 10 x 12 5/8 in. (25.5 x 32 cm), Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Photo credit: Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY )
The exhibition at the Met, organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, presents a number of these charming Victorian photocollage albums, almost all of them crafted by women, accompanied by extensive and illuminating research on the lives of their makers. As a collection, the exhibition offers a rare glimpse into the whimsical possibilities of early photography eagerly grasped by these women artists, a counterpoint to the often very serious discourse surrounding photography at the time.
Here these monochromatic photographic cut-outs populate stage settings and surreal landscapes, their stiffly-posed likenesses interacting in social settings of brightly watercolored parlors and croquet fields. Some inhabit livable spaces in relatively plausible arrangements, yet some find themselves hovering within the branches of trees, in hot-air balloons high above the town, or straddling oversized animals. Some even are transformed into mythical, though rather absurd chimeras--Kate Edith Gough, in one of her album pages, inserted ladies' heads on the bodies of floating ducks. The intended humor and lightheartedness is evident in these album pages, as well as the Victorian penchant for theatre, role-playing and generally "playing pretend."
(Kate Edith Gough (English, 1856–1948), Untitled page from the Gough Album, late 1870s, Collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints; 14 5/8 x 11 5/8 in. (37 x 29.5 cm), V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London.)
(top image: Maria Harriet Elizabeth Cator (English, d. 1881), Untitled page from the Cator Album, late 1860s/70s, Collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints; 10 7/8 x 8 1/2 in. (27.7 x 21.7 cm), courtesy Hans P. Kraus, Jr., New York.)