Tag Archives: Exhibitions

The manipulated image – further research: Photomontage and Martha Rosler and John Heartfield at the Tate Modern


John Heartfield Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers becomes deaf and blind (1930)

As part of my growing interest in the manipulated image in general I visited the collection of John Heartfield photomontages held at the Tate Modern in London.

John Heartfield was one of the early masters of photomontage the process of manipulating, cutting and putting photographs together. Photomontage incorporates the German term ‘Monteur’ for mechanic giving the connotation of an industrialised production process far removed from the artisan’s studio.


John Heartfield, Fritz Thyssen Pulls the Strings (1930)

A member of the Berlin Dada group Helmut Herzfeld changed his name to the more English sounding John Heartfield as a protest against the rise in wartime nationalism in Germany during WWI. From 1920 he joined the German Communist Party and focussed his work on producing satirical photomontage images for the communist weekly AIZ often targeting Nazism, Hitler himself and Capitalism.

Given the political climate of the day within Germany and Europe Heartfield’s work is not only brave and bold but intelligent, raw and uncompromising.

Martha Rosler As part of a continued study into the work of Martha Rosler I have also researched her work with the photomontage and specifically looked at her work House Beautiful: Bringing the War home which became the vehicle for her response to the intense and graphic media and TV coverage of the Vietnam War. Rosler saw how the constant news depiction of Vietnam had effectively brought the War into the living room lounges and therefore daily lives of the American public and the impact of this in terms of desensitisation and creating a spectacle of the violence of war.

An image which typifies Rosler’s style in this series is Cleaning the Drapes from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home

This image can be seen at http://www.moma.org/collection/works/150123?locale=en

Her images juxtapose images taken from Life magazine of the perfect American lifestyle alongside the true horror and reality of war creating an extremely powerful body of work, revisited through the creation of a second series as Rosler’s protest against the Iraq War.

I found it difficult to download any decent images but you can see more of Rosler’s work at her own website at
http://www.martharosler.net – and and by visiting the Museum of Modern Art website at http://www.moma.org/collection/artists/6832

Power of Montage

My interest in photomontage lies in it’s ability to create a powerful sense of reality from what is clearly a manipulated environment, through piecing together part images taken from real life representation, previously known as the real photographic image. In other words, we know the final composition isn’t real but it could be and what does this newly created reality mean in relationship to our perceived reality.

The methodology of photomontage lends itself perfectly to thematic subjects which question, protest or subvert a convention through it’s ability to counter everyday surface image and reality.

Reference list
John Heartfield Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers becomes deaf and blind (1930).

Taken from http://fineartkingston.co.uk/amyeckleben/2014/03/13/john-heartfield/ (accessed 07/03/16)

John Heartfield, Fritz Thyssen Pulls the Strings (1930)

Taken from http://spartacus-educational.com/FWWheartfield.htm

(accessed 07/03/16)

More information can be found on Martha Rosler at http://www.martharosler.net and by visiting the Museum of Modern Art website at





Study visit: Recording Britain Now: Society

OCA tutor Diana Ali led the study visit to the New Art Gallery in Walsall, West Midlands where there was an exhibition of the 30 short-listed finalists of the 3rd John Ruskin award. Student, amateur and professional artists were invited to respond to this year’s theme of Recording Britain Now: Society.

The John Ruskin Prize is named after the prominent Victorian artist, writer and philosopher John Ruskin (1819-1900). Ruskin was well known for his questioning of social and political issues of the day. For the past three years the John Ruskin Prize has been affiliated with Recording Britain and takes it inspiration from the original project initiated by Sir Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) the art historian, author and historian. The original Recording Britain project employed artists on the home front make a record of Britain at the outbreak of the WWII. The resultant collection of 1500 water colours and drawings now reside at The Victoria and Albert museum, London.

The exhibition featured many of the themes of social life which are regarded as significant in Britain today such as inequality, homelessness, immigration, the impacts of technology, urban decline and regeneration/gentrification, self-image possibly explained and to be expected given the personal ethos of the founding father of the prize.

Was there a lack of diversity? Possibly, certainly there was a very definite left wing liberalism about virtually all of the entrants a point I make beyond the question of political belief. My thoughts are whether aspects of Martha Rosler’s argument as set out in her essay In, around, and afterthoughts (On documentary photography) (1981) can shed any light on this distinct orientation. Rosler’s view is that documentary, in her case photography, which is designed to bring about social change is effectively dead and that current documentary is motivated by other often ulterior motives, not least, “the social conscience of liberal sensibility presented in visual imagery,” (Rosler, M. (1981). This point is not necessarily levelled at the artists but possibly reflect the panel of judges?

Where I believe Rosler is wrong is her absolute judgement in her opinions as whilst I do believe that there can be a tendency for people, not just artists, to voice liberalist and often left wing views so as to appear more open-minded and good spirited I am also convinced that there are many true and genuine motives behind these and other works of art which might carry similar messages.

I believe the argument stretches beyond photography or even art in that we are increasingly locked in an all-consuming global capitalist system ultimately controlling economic, social and political movement which creates the path to make money out of any situation, even if that involves marketing a work of art which is originally by the artist with the intention to undermine the system. And so individuals or a particular work of art or an exhibition are less than a drop in the ocean and swimming in a one-way river.

I found the exhibition extremely interesting in terms of engaging with a different art medium to photography. I have recently begun to really understand the photographer’s responsibility to offer their expression and interpretation and not just to take pictures in a state of semi-consciousness. Whilst I fully appreciate that it is also possible to draw or paint without any real conviction this does not compare to the ease of process in capturing images with a modern camera so the temptation in photography to just to blindly click away is far greater.

Ruskin prize-2

Julian Bovis, 100 Bristol Houses, 2015.

I was very interested to see how artists used their medium to convey and communicate their message and this was an interesting process. I particularly liked the above ink drawing by Julian Bovis 100 Bristol Houses, 2015. I found the perspective and congestion of the composition very effective in creating a sense of claustrophobia and this combined with the cardboard material selected by Bovis to act as his canvass which created a sense that the picture had been drawn on the inside of a discarded giant box of cornflakes. My interpretation was that the artist created this combination so as to create an everyday sense of cramped living conditions within a monotonous social environment as his reflection on today’s Britain.

One of my colleagues Alan from Liverpool, a drawing and painting student even gave me a quick overview and lesson in creating perspective which was extremely useful. The process of mixing and sharing ideas, knowledge and experiences with other OCA students is invaluable and Diana Ali did an excellent job of leading the group with genuine enthusiasm, patience and knowledge.

A really productive and enjoyable day, the second study visit in recent months in the West Midlands and a very positive and good humoured group of students developing!

Reference List

Rosler, M In, around, and afterthoughts (On documentary photography) (1981) copy of the original essay can be seen following the link: http://everydayarchive.org/awt/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/rosler-martha_in-around-afterthoughts.pdf (accessed 30/03/16)


http://www.thebigdraw.org/ruskinprize (accessed 30/03/16)

http://www.thenewartgallerywalsall.org.uk/whats-on/exhibition/the-john-ruskin-prize-recording-britain-nowsociety (accessed 30/03/2016)


Exhibition visit: Janet Mendelsohn Varna Road, IKON Gallery, Birmingham


An old cache of black and white photographs were discovered by Kieran Connell, a social historian who was preparing an archive as part of the 50th anniversary of Birmingham centre for Contemporary Cultural studies where the photographer and documentary film-maker Janet Mendelsohn had arrived from Boston to study for a MA in 1967.

The images tell a story of Varna Road, at the time a notorious street in the slums in Birmingham. At the time it was thought that up to 200 prostitutes worked in the area and Mendelsohn’s images show life for the residents and workers on the streets, in their houses and in the pubs and cafes in Balsall Heath.

Mendelsohn became particularly close to a sex worker who is referred to as Kathleen and she and her baby and partner who also operates as her pimp become the subject of a number of Mendelsohn’s images.

“Mendelsohn was encouraged by Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart – then deputy and director of the Centre for Cultural Contemporary studies in Birmingham – to explore ways in which photography could be used in field research. The resulting archive of 3,000 photographs and interviews are now held at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.” An extract taken from the exhibition catalogue, (Mendelsohn, J. (2016) Varna Road. Birmingham: IKON.

The exhibition proved to be a timely case study in critical analysis of documentary photography having just been reading the carious critical debates proposed by the likes of Susan Sontag, Martha Rosler and Abigail Solomon-Godeau.

The original photographs were part of an academic study as oppose a specific campaign for social reform. As a study for a contemporary culture student then life in the inner city slums in the 1960s was a major topical subject and so the attraction is obvious. The images are balanced, subjects dealt with honestly but also empathetically. Kathleen’s state of mind is implied in a number of haunting shadowed portraits but these are balanced with images of her laughing with her baby and her partner / pimp also holding the baby. In Solomon-Godeau’s mind the images tell ‘a truth’. (La Grange, A. 2005).

Mendelsohn took over 3,000 images from which 53 were exhibited by the IKON gallery so clearly there is an interpretation and selection process which has been administered to present the final collection to meet the needs of the narrative. Susan Sontag states, “the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth.” (Sontag, S. 1977)

Are the street workers the new exotic birds having their pictures taken by social anthropologists, with the images destined to end up in an art gallery much in the same way as a stuffed bird from an exotic Island would have ended up in a glass case in a Museum in the 18th or 19th centuries.

In terms of winners and losers there is no suggestion that any of the subjects benefitted from this experience, indeed Kathleen’s partner Salim was murdered not long after this period. (Khaleeli, H. 2016). Mendelsohn’s career has passed but she eventually gains some sort of recognition in an exhibition although due to a major illness she could no longer recall or remember taking the photographs. The photographs now sit in the University of Birmingham so the academic network has a valuable asset in the recording of the City’s and, indeed, England’s history. A society, which creates the environment and subjects for the photographs, ultimately reap the benefits.

For a full review on the exhibition you can visit


(accessed 15/02/2016)

Reference list

La Grange, A (2005). A basic Critical Theory for Photographers. (9th ed.) Abingdon: Focal Press.

Khaleei H, (2016) The wickedest road in Britain: the photos that told the truth about red light Birmingham The Guardian 11/01/2016

Mendelsohn, J. (2016). Varna Road. Exhibition, Birmingham: IKON.

Sontag,S. (1977). On Photography. Reissued, London: Penguin.