Throughout history, artists have pushed boundaries to discover new ways of artistic expression. Photography was once considered an art form that was only representative of reality. But, only three decades after the first-ever photograph was captured, a new art form emerged — the photomontage.

Photo by John Saxon on Flickr

What is Photomontage?

Photomontage is a type of collage that combines two or more photographs to form a single composition. The art of photomontage first appeared when Victorian-era photographers began experimenting with new ways to expand upon their craft. Picture-taking was first created as a way to capture a single moment in time. Photographs only captured what was in front of the lens. They were considered a record of truth, only capturing reality.

But, as with any art form, artists began pushing boundaries. They found new ways to use cameras, images, exposure, and printmaking to take photography into new realities. The first known photomontage—then called combination printing—was made in 1857 by Oscar Rejlander. The piece, entitled The Two Ways of Life, combined 32 separate photos to create an alternate reality that depicted both sin and virtue in a single image.

“The Two Ways of Life” by Oscar Gustav Rejlander, 1857, public domain

What Isn’t Photomontage?

To better understand what is photomontage, it helps to know what isn’t one. A true photomontage combines multiple images to create a single composition. Although this process can be faked using digital editing or cutting and pasting a single image, it wouldn’t be a photomontage. At its core, a photomontage must be made with multiple photos.

What’s more, those multiple photos should be different from one another, even if slightly. It is possible to create visually attractive, compelling photographic art by positioning multiples of the same image. However, this is not photomontage.

Finally, although all photomontages are a type of photo collage, not all photo collages are photomontages. A collection of photos arranged together in a single image may be attractive or meaningful to the artist. But, unless those several images combine in a way that creates a separate, single composition, it isn’t photomontage.

what is Photomontage
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The image above combines multiple different photographs in an attractive way. While it makes for a compelling collage, the 25 images each continue to stand alone. They don’t interact. To make a photomontage, the artist would need to combine these separate and distinct images to form a single composition.

How to Create a Photomontage

If photography is an art form in itself, photomontage is an expansion of that art. Rather than a single image that captures a specific moment in time, many photos combine to create a new image.

The new image could be a composite of a single subject taken from a variety of angles or vantage points. They can be taken at different times of the day or through different seasons. You can photograph a single subject in a variety of locations. Or a variety of subjects passing through a single location. In creating a photomontage, you’re limited only by your imagination. So, where do you start?

Photo by Chris Friese on Flickr

Develop a concept

The first step in creating an attractive, meaningful, or powerful work of art is to develop a concept. Consider what you want your final image to convey. Your concept could be as simple as creating an image that invokes a single emotion from the viewer. Or, it could be something complex, like making social commentary or a political statement. The possibilities are endless and varied.

Select a subject

Once you’ve developed a concept, you’ll need to select your subject. This can be a person, place, or object that you’ll photograph. Do you want to show how a person’s expressions change over a course of a day? Perhaps you want to demonstrate how a place changes over time. You may want to capture how the light changes throughout the day or how the landscape changes over the seasons. Or, maybe you’d like to showcase how a single object appears in different environments.

In the image below, the artist/photographer combined 32 photographs of his face, one taken for each year of his life. The final result is a single composition photomontage that portrays how he looks today.

Photo by Jari Schroderus on Flickr

Take extra photographs

You may not use them all in your final composition, but you’ll want to take far more images than you think you’ll need. Change your vantage points. Adjust your lighting and exposure settings. While photographing your subject, keep your concept in mind. Look for lines—horizon lines, vertical lines of buildings or trees, or curved lines like the edges of a face. These lines will be important for lining up your final photomontage later.

Assemble your composition

The last step in creating a photomontage is to assemble your composition. You can do this digitally with your favorite photo editing software. Or, you may choose to print your individual images and layout the photomontage by hand.

In assembling the composition, you may choose to keep visible edges between shots or blend them together seamlessly. You may tilt, rotate, flip, or slice your individual images. Remember, the process is fluid. Even the best laid plans often change through the creation of your art, so wait until you’re absolutely happy with the final result before gluing or digitally flattening your image.

Once you’ve mastered creating photomontages of a single subject, you can explore combining subjects to create abstract concepts and alternate realities through your work.

Final Thoughts

As with most forms of artistic expression, your only limit is your imagination. Although there are strict rules in art, you’ll want to consider how the choices you make will impact your final piece.

Keep composition guidelines in mind when both photographing and assembling your photomontage. Click here for more in-depth discussion on composition techniques as well as do’s and don’ts for creating visually dynamic compositions.