The joy of photomontage

This may seem like an attack of pique or bitterness…but no. Strange coincidence…possibly. I had just been ranting to the cat about an illustration I’d seen in the previous week’s New Statesman. The cat disagreed, but what does he bloody know? The illustration depicted Christopher Hitchens, ironically, as the Buddha [here]. Rather than a cartoon illustration, the picture editor had chosen a photo-montage; an act which had sent me a-grumbling. Later that day, I was informed that my only regular newspaper cartoon slot (a profile caricature in The Sunday Telegraph) was to be replaced by a photograph from now on. Sorry old chap, and all that, but they’re a bit cheaper. I couldn’t be angry – the Buddha had foretold it, after all. Acceptance; that was the clear message.

The offending photo-montage accompanied a review of the Old Curmudgeon’s latest book – a tirade against faith. As far as montages go, it wasn’t a bad one – the Staggers is now full of similar but inferior composites; mostly constructions of Blair, Bush and Brown in humorous poses, which, in the past, would have been drawn by a cartoonist. [The decline of respect for cartoons at the New Statesman has been written about with far more style here by Martin Rowson].

The photo-montage is ubiquitous now. And let me say right here that I have no quarrel with montage in general; nor even good satirical montage work (here, for example) based on clever ideas. Cartoonists have been selectively using montage to good effect for a long time (Scarfe, Steadman, Heath etc.); it’s just another tool in the toolbox. I guess, as ever, the chasm between good and poor work is greater than that between genres. But the problem for me arises in its use as a cheap, crass alternative to drawn illustration. The sad truth is that anybody with a copy of Photoshop and access to a good photo library – that is, everybody who works in a newspaper office – can produce an adequate photo-montage illustration.

Photography, for all its art and artifice, suggests the real world; the realm of reportage rather than comment. In contrast, a drawn cartoon exists in a fantasy world, but one with its own, albeit sometimes ridiculous, self-consistency. Photo-montages sit, rather uncomfortably, somewhere between these two poles. And that’s why they don’t hack it.

First, they lack the coherence of the cartoonist’s drawing style; the photos will all have been taken in different light, probably with different zoom magnifications and the faces will have different, inappropriate expressions. To rectify this, the “montagiste” will stick a smile from one photo on a dour face from another photo. I suppose you could say that this all adds to their post-modern fragmented chic, but that sounds more like a man trying to defend his act of crapping on your doorstep by pointing out the resonant sense of dislocation implied by the cheeky counterpoint of turd and doorstep.

Second, the montage maker will always be wanting for source material. Even with the biggest photo library in the world, the perfect facial shot for his/her montage will always remain elusive but the cartoonist, meanwhile, has an infinite supply of facial expressions at his/her disposal – in his/her head and hands. The subtlety of that expression is the very heart of the cartoonists’ art.

But saddest of all, most photo-montages lack charm and style.

Maybe Photoshop is the industrial loom that will render us cartoonist-Luddites useless. If so, maybe it will have been our own fault. Just take a look at the internet. It’s crammed full of very poor caricatures and cartoons which would lead you to believe that all of us are “wacky”, “zany” hobbyists, the limit of whose talent is to draw big, badly drawn heads on unfeasibly small bodies of politicians and call ourselves satirists. Maybe our own shoddy, manual “weaving” was the mother of the invention of this digital “loom”.

Maybe. But I don’t think so. I think there is a future for good cartoon illustration, just as soon as Boxing Day comes and everyone’s bored with their new Photoshop toys. There is something timeless about homo sapiens picking up a stick (charred, inky or digital) and creating a picture. The best of it is fantastic. Will we, in a few decades’ time, be looking back admiringly at the work of great Photoshoppers in the same way we now do of cartoon illustrators like Bateman, Thelwell, Searle, Steadman and the like? I think I know the answer.

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