Daily Archives: June 27, 2010

Hannah Höch, self-portrait, c.1930

Dear Hannah Höch,

Today in HA 262 we considered your practice of photomontage in the early 1920s and 30s. I am writing to let you know the impact your work has had on contemporary culture. Photomontage – let’s break it down, a photo of course, meaning the material you used: photographic fragments from mass media, newspaper clippings, trade journals, fashion and popular magazines, and then montage, meaning how you cut up and engineered photographs into new ways of seeing your world, technology and social structures. Hannah, you challenged the status quo message of Wiemar Germany and Nazi-controlled media with your ironic and discomforting photomontages. If people can’t read that now its because we have lost the immediate context of faces and names who no doubt were as notorious in your era as the governator is in ours.

Hannah Höch, Dada Panorama, 1919, Photomontage with Gouache and watercolor

media/source material in Hannah Höch's Dada Panorama

You recognized mass produced material for what it was, raw data and then you manipulated the photographic space and distorted the realism of the photographic form. Today this process and play with media is called “a mash-up” – a cut and paste of parts of a text, image, audio, video or animation is remixed and recombined into a new work; a.k.a assemblage, appropriation, pastiche, intertextuality, sample, found art and tent city. New builds on old.

Hannah Höch, Tamer, 1930, photomontage with collage

Here is a short list of artists your montage methods have influenced, starting with your contemporaries: Meret Oppenheim, Tristan Tzara, Man Ray, Max Ernst and Walter Benjamin…then William Burroughs, Joseph Cornell, Pauline Oliveros, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Martha Rosler in the 50s & 60s; Dara Birnbaum, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman in the 80s. In the new millennium sculpture installation artist Brian Jungen reworks materials, Nike shoes and refuse bins but without concealing the objects’ original meaning. Sound installation artist Janet Cardiff records walks on city streets that are re-walked by a listener wearing headphones. Graffiti artists Bansky, Swoon and Shepard Fairey have cut out the art gallery and paste images directly in the street. All of us have vast networks of file exchange that take copy, remix, reuse culture to a pervasive level; .mp3, .wma, .oog, .wav, .mov, .jpeg files can be endlessly mapped on top of one another, reconfigured and replayed.

Hannah Höch, When Fragrances Bloom, 1962, photomontage on cardboard

media/source material for Hannah Höch's photomontage When Fragrances Bloom

Hannah you realized that media is thought and thoughts are media. Your time, 1889-1978, was your context but your work has a reference status in the future. I am glad you kept pace with all those manly men in the DADA group.

Thank you,

“And our faces, my heart, brief as photos” [1]

[1] Berger, John. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. First Vintage International Edition, 1991. New York. Copyright 1984. John Berger. p.5

READ: The Photomontages of Hannah Höch. Makela and Boswell.Walker Art Center. 1997 and Women Seeing Women. Introduction by Naomi Rosenblum.W.W. Norton&co. 2001

Helen Levitt - Girls and Bubbles, c. 1945. Gelatin silver print, printed c. 1970, 6 13/16 x 9 3/4" (17.3 x 24.7 cm). Gift of Janice Levitt. © 2010 The Estate of Helen Levitt, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

First is this is a black and white photograph by Helen Levitt. Second it is an image of a sidewalk, a street and a brick wall; four young girls walk on the sidewalk parallel to the road and brick wall. The brick wall supports a train rail bed; it is massive and the bricks are oversized and irregular. The wall is in deep perspective and the photographer has framed or cropped the image to emphasize the wall’s vanishing point. The buildings in the distance are hazier, all the detail and contrast is on the girls, the bubbles and the bricks.

The girls in the photograph are not facing the camera; the girls are looking in the direction the brick wall to five floating soap bubbles rising above the street. The street is between the girls and the bubbles. The girl nearest to the street is wearing shoes and a light skirt with no blouse or perhaps she wears a halter-dress. Her hair is up. Her right arm is on her hip. The next girl is the smallest, the youngest of the four, she too wears shoes, a light dress and her hair is in a ponytail. The next girl has blond hair, also up, she is wearing dark shorts with a dark and light striped t-shirt, socks and shoes. The fourth girl on the sidewalk, furthest away from the street, is the tallest and the heaviest. She wears a dress with dots (or small flowers). She wears socks and shoes; her hair is shorter than the other girls. The girl in the shorts and stripped t-shirt is white the other girls are black. They might be ages 6-12. All their heads are turned to watch the soap bubbles – they are not looking where they are going. The girls are not in danger though; there are no cars on the street. The mood of the photograph seems to say, “this is a lazy, warm summer afternoon just right for an ice cream and walk around the block.”

The photographer is walking on the street too. Perhaps she is following the girls without them knowing, waiting, looking for images. Where do the soap bubbles come from? Is there someone outside the camera frame? This makes for mystery and tension, an unknown blower and a “burst”. In this photograph Helen Levitt is photographing what is before her while capturing what is beside her and what is about to be.

I chose the photo of Girls and Bubbles by Helen Levitt for a personal reason; I have walked this sidewalk too; in 2008 I went to NYC to visit the art galleries as well as the Graffiti Wall of Fame just on the other side of this massive brick wall, the Park Ave Trunk Line, at E 106th St & Park in East Harlem.