John Heartfield



John Heartfield was a pioneer of modern photomontage. Working in Germany and Czechoslovakia between the two world wars, he developed a unique method of appropriating and reusing photographs to powerful political effect. At a time of great uncertainty, Heartfield’s agitated images forecasted and reflected the chaos Germany experienced in the 1920s and ’30s as it slipped toward social and political catastrophe. In this climate, communists, Nazis, and other partisans clashed in the press, at the ballot box, and on the streets. The impact of Heartfield’s images was so great that they helped transform photomontage into a powerful form of mass communication.” (source) You can find many more images here and here.

Of course, today we would easily consider many of Heartfield’s collages as quite crude. The one above, for example, “was used as an anti-Hitler poster in the 1932 election. It refers to the financial backing Hitler received from wealthy industrialists who feared Germany would vote for a Communist government.” (source) But one needs to keep in mind that back then, TV as a mass medium did not exist. Likewise, photography was still in its infancy, and photojournalism as we know it today was pretty much unknown. People reacted very differently to images.

There is a reason why I thought it would be worthwhile showing Heartfield’s work, and that’s because of the brouhaha about Jill Greenberg’s McCain job. It’s not hard to see Greenberg’s Photoshop work as somewhat comparable to Heartfield’s montages. But the equivalent of what 1930s was cutting-edge political art with a serious statement, today, now that 75 years have passed in which photography, TV, and art evolved quite a bit, is, well, not very cutting edge at all and, in fact, about as unsophisticated as one could get.

And that’s another important thing to keep in mind when comparing Greenberg’s “art work” with older photography: What years ago might have been considered to be a valid piece of photographic (art) work nowadays might not work any longer: We - the viewers - have simply become more sophisticated (or more used to certain photographic ways - or maybe even more jaded?). I don’t want to write “we, the consumers”, because even though we are consumers of imagery, I think using “consumers” would bias the thought a bit too much.

I don’t want to digress too much from Heartfield, but I think many of the problems that “classic” photojournalism is now dealing with stem from the same root: We just know the language of classic photojournalism, and this knowledge blunts its impact. But I suppose that would be a good subject for a different post…