Images Under Construction: Photomontage in Interwar Europe and Japan
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This article will examine the circulation of modernist photomontage among Weimar-era Germany, the Soviet Union, and interwar Japan of the 1930s. I aim to situate this circulation at the epicenter of the escalating antagonism over the public sphere as a site for the contest between proletarian collectivization and fascist mass formation that rifted both German and Japanese society. I will suggest that in interwar Germany and Japan, this avant-garde technique was always torn by an ambivalence between celebration of the machine age, as in Horino Masao’s, Furukawa Narutoshi’s, and Paul Citroen’s respective industrial montages, and more critical, antiauthoritarian impulses, as evident in the politically edged photomontages of, for example, Yasui Nakaji and Ōkubo Koroku, drawing from the Dadaist collages of Hannah Höch and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy as well as the radical Soviet montages of Gustav Klutsis.
As numerous observers recounted at the time, the photographic medium provided a readily available means to document social reality for a newfound public constituted through mechanical reproduction. Accordingly, the tension between pressures to mobilize such photographic realism toward propagandistic ends on the one hand — whether on the political left (in magazines such as AIZ and Battle Flag) or on the right (as in Der Stürmer and NIPPON) — and to withdraw into an antirepresentational, subjective formalism on the other was actively mediated by photomontage’s denaturalization of the photographic print’s surface continuity. And yet the public/private opposition operative in the field of the New Photography (G. neue Fotografie; J. shinkō shashin) was not necessarily coterminous with the distinction between progressive and reactionary functions for photographic communication.
Because photomontage was employed simultaneously as a vehicle for consolidating the body politic and for retreating from it, the exploration of subjectivity in, for example, the Japanese surrealists Koishi Kiyoshi’s and Ei-Q’s sensual montages could arguably provide an antifascist antidote for — as much as it risked submission to — the obliteration of the individual in, for instance, the accumulation of tanks or mass parades in Hamaya Hiroshi’s propaganda work, which drew from Herbert Bayer’s pro-Nazi montages. This article will therefore approach the circulation of various inflections of German, Soviet, and Japanese photomontage as illustrative of the broader dialectics between collectivity and privatization, socialization and alienation, or proletarian and fascist publics delimiting and circumscribing potentialities for these nations’ future on the cusp of world war.
Let us begin with a working definition of photomontage. A conjuncture of photographic images or fragments from various sources brought together in a single compositional frame, photomontage may be achieved through multiple exposures on one piece of photographic film or paper or through the cut-and-paste technique of already exposed prints popularized by the Dadaists Hannah Höch and John Heartfield and the Soviet artist Gustav Klutsis. Further, as in Horino Masao’s use below, this compositional frame may even comprise the entire page or page spread of a book or periodical, in which the graphic juxtaposition of discrete images and textual elements produces a montage effect.
Photomontage’s circulation and reception in interwar Japan arguably begins with the early collages of the renowned artist and playwright Murayama Tomoyoshi, who was greatly influenced by the Dadaist aesthetics of Hannah Höch, Raoul Hausmann, and Georg Grosz during his period of study at Humbolt University of Berlin, from 1922 to 1923. Many of Murayama’s painterly and artistically inclined contemporaries also studied abroad in Germany, absorbing the trends in advanced European art and disseminating Futurism, Cubism, Dadaism, and Constructivism to Japan.
For one, Natori Yōnosuke, who would contribute greatly to the popularity of photojournalism in Japan and later cofound the propaganda magazine NIPPON, lived and studied in Munich and later took a monumental panorama of the Nazi presence at the 1936 Olympic Games, in Berlin. As Gennifer Weisenfeld notes, “The Japanese photography community had exceptionally strong ties to Germany both theoretically and in terms of actual practice, as many Japanese photographers as well as Natori studied there during this period” (244).
With the availability of portable, handheld cameras, such as the Leica 35 mm after 1925, German photography in the twenties witnessed an explosion of creative impulses, leading to the catchphrase die neue Fotografie (the new photography) to describe this fervor of activity. Pivotal to the emergence of the new photography (shinkō shashin) in Japan, however, was the invitation to Japan to attend the immensely successful 1929 exhibition Film und Foto, held in Stuttgart, which displayed the modernist photography of Moholy-Nagy, Albert Renger Patszch, El Lissitzky, Edward Weston, and a number of other prominent European and American artists. By hosting this same exhibition at the Asahi Shimbun newspaper offices in Tokyo and Osaka in 1931, organizers Murayama Tomoyoshi and Okada Sozo, who had both seen Film und Foto in Germany, helped to promote interest in photography’s medium-specific capabilities against the earlier Pictorialist (geijutsu shashin) school, characterized by soft-focus portraiture and landscapes: what the Weimar art historian Franz Roh called in his important 1929 text Foto-auge (Photo-eye) “a frank or disguised attempt . . . to imitate the charm that belongs either to painting or to graphic art” (29).
This traveling exhibition also cemented the foundational relationship between Japanese and German modernist photography, which would continue throughout the 1930s with, for example, the photographer and architect Yamawaki Iwao’s stint at the Bauhaus in Dessau, where Moholy-Nagy taught, following in the footsteps of the critic and Bauhaus student Nakada Sadanosuke. As the art historian and curator Mizusawa Tsutomu recounts, “[H]aving returned to Japan in January 1924, Nakada began immediately zealously introducing others to Bauhaus and, thanks to his translation of Moholy-Nagy’s text, (Nakada Sadanosuke, ‘Shashin geijutsu no shinkeikō; Mohoi-Naji no kincho kara’ [‘The New Wave of Photography — From Moholy-Nagy’s Recent Work’]) in Asahi Kamera, October 1926), his work provided a great stimulus to the world of Japanese photography in the late 1920s.” Mizusawa continues, “[F]or the new photography movement in the 1930s, Moholy-Nagy was certainly a key individual, and it was Nakada who had contributed greatly in making him such a familiar entity for the Japanese at that time” (280).
The flagship modernist photography journal Kōga (literally, “light pictures”), run by the photographers Nojima Yasuzō, Kimura Ihee, and Nakayama Iwata between 1932 and 1933, published some of the first experiments in Japanese photomontage. The affiliated critic Ina Nobuo provided something of a manifesto for the new Japanese photography with his widely celebrated essay, “Return to Photography” (Shashin ni kaere), in which he championed the camera as “a product of machine civilization” (25) and called on photographers to recognize their status as “social beings” (shakaiteki ningen, 35), thus privileging the new circulation of illustrated print magazines and photography’s role as a social documentary tool rather than an autonomous art, as the Pictorialist school had previously insisted.
Consistent with this, in his later 1932 essay in Asahi Camera, “What Is Photomontage?” (Fotomontaju wa nanika), Ina recognized the Dadaists John Heartfield and George Grosz as the cofounders of the technique, and emphasized throughout how the montage form enables the artist to convey his or her opinions or message through subjective compositional manipulation of “line, color, text, etc.” above and beyond that possible with the singular photograph (75). “Because photomontage is constructed,” writes Ina, “it is something which has from the beginning opposed descriptive realism. But it cannot be said that it does not contain a certain reality [genjitsusei]. Rather, on the contrary, because when the artist correctly grasps and interprets objective reality, and, according to their own artistic sense begins to construct objective reality by adding a significant accent or otherwise selecting and culling some meaningful content, the inclusion of a strong sense of reality becomes possible” (77).
This focus on construction echoes an observation made in the Weimar intellectual Walter Benjamin’s “Little History of Photography,” from two years earlier. Critically responding to photography’s role in advertising, which “can endow any soup can with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists” — here the “human connections” resound with Ina’s “social beings”— Benjamin proposes that the “logical counterpart” of this advertisement “is the act of unmasking or construction” (526). Benjamin then quotes the like-minded playwright Bertolt Brecht, who contended that “less than ever does the mere reflection of reality reveal anything about reality,” and, as a consequence, “something must in fact be built up, something artificial, posed” (quoted in Benjamin, 526). Akin to Heartfield’s montages, here Brecht proposes a variant of photomontage that may inject the surface reflection of the photographic setting with a constructive component — Ina’s “accent” — that may reveal mediations and broader structural antagonisms otherwise invisible to the camera.
However, for Ina Nobuo, photomontage’s defining characteristic, its subjective element, “immediately becomes a shortcoming,” insofar as it always runs the risk of “purposeless expression” and “meaningless construction” (77). In the case of Heartfield’s works, by contrast, “there is not even a trace of the formal games into which a montage artist easily falls,” commending Heartfield’s compositions for “retaining the utmost political nature, and therefore a strong power to incite” (77). As evidence, Ina quotes Adolf Behne’s 1931 caption that Heartfield’s montages consist of “photography plus dynamite” (quoted in Hake, 311).
Ina Nobuo was perhaps the earliest Japanese critic to theorize about the relationship between photomontage and society, engaging with contemporary ideas about the new photography then circulating in Europe. As Adrian Sudhalter remarks, it was in Weimar Germany “that — as part of a larger movement to create a taxonomy of photographic practice — writing on photomontage quickly developed into a rational, multi-faceted discourse that aimed to explain the form as it manifested itself both at home and abroad” (10). Sudhalter continues, “The shift in writing about photomontage from an insular, self-reflective enterprise to a far-reaching pedagogical one, marked by the publication of [Moholy-Nagy’s] Malerei Photographie Film, coincided with a shift in the production of photomontage itself, from the limited world of art to the broader stage of everyday culture.” Accordingly, “In Western Europe,” he observes, “the widespread accessibility, communicative potential, and reproducibility of Photomontage and Typophoto (alternately referred to as ‘polygraphy’ and ‘phototypography’) insured its growing use in commercial culture and, in the Soviet Union, it would come to prominence in the service of political ends” (14).
Key critics and artists in Weimar Germany and the Soviet Union understood photomontage primarily along two principal axes — the accuracy of photographic representation and the simultaneous registration of contrasting elements. As César Domela-Nieuwenhuis aptly put it, “We are living in an age of extreme precision and maximum contrasts, and we find these expressed in the photomontage” (130). The Russian designer Gustav Klutsis seconds this by writing that “[p]hotomontage is organized on the principle of maximum contrast between the unexpectedness of composition and differences in scale. The photo fixates a frozen, static MOMENT. Photomontage shows the dynamic life, developing the thematic of a given subject” (117). The former Dadaist Raoul Hausmann, writing in 1931, similarly describes photomontage’s “ability to weigh and balance the most violent oppositions,” which, he sees, “will assure it a long survival and ample opportunities for development,” whether for progressive purposes or for advertising and state propaganda (180). And in Malerei Fotografie Film, Moholy-Nagy recognized the temporal continuum in which the photomontage effectively intervenes: “Every period has its own optical focus. Our age: that of the film; the electric sign; simultaneity of sensorily perceptible events” (39).
Further, as Christopher Phillips writes, the prominent theorist of the Russian avant-garde Sergei Tretyakov perceived how photomontage “techniques serve to divert the photograph from what it ‘naturally’ seems to say, and to underscore the need for the viewer’s active ‘reading’ of the image” (28). Matthew Teitelbaum likewise posits that “[t]he compositional device of dramatic foregrounding provokes the viewer to re-think the relations between objects, to re-establish a hierarchy of correspondences” (8). This “active” function of photomontage was exceptionally important for artists with strong political leanings, among them John Heartfield, whose “agitated image,” in Andrés Mario Zervigón’s terms, “transformed the static opticality associated with the photograph into a multisensory assault seemingly made over time.” Accordingly, Zervigón continues, Heartfield “sought to reinvent the photochemical trace as a gripping, punching, and screeching performance” (7).
This effective social resonance also precipitated the language of photomontage as “a weapon in the struggle for power and mass consensus,” writes Sabine Kriebel in her study of Heartfield (5). Ascribing to the medium an explicitly politicized edge and upholding as exemplary Heartfield’s revolutionary works, the proletarian critic Alfred Keményi, in 1932, described photomontage as “[a] work of art that offers completely new opportunities — with regard to content, not just form — for uncovering relationships, oppositions, transitions, and intersections of social reality. Only when the photomonteur makes use of these opportunities does his photomontage become a truly revolutionary weapon in the class struggle” (653).
As in the case of Germany, for Japan during the turbulent decade of the 1930s, photomontage’s unprecedented circulation had both progressive and deleterious societal effects. It mutated from an instrument of social critique to a vehicle for state hegemony and mass deception. As a means of distilling and outlining this complex and multivalent trajectory, I propose three groupings by which to map the variegated field of photomontage’s emergence and evolution in Japan into a recognizable historical sequence: political satire and social protest; subjectivist interiority and surrealist self-reflexivity; and wartime mobilization propaganda.
These are not meant to be mutually exclusive categories, and their aesthetic porousness as well as historical-sequential overlaps should caution against hypostatization as definitive or authoritative classifications. Nonetheless, I find that they help us to grasp the broader historical arc and dominant tendencies in photomontage’s circulation and development in this tumultuous period. In what follows, I will therefore attempt to elucidate these three groupings by way of interpretations of representative works by prominent Japanese artists, hoping to shed light on this formative period in the history of Japanese photography.
Photomontage as Social Critique
In the early 1930s, with the energy of Japan’s formidable proletarian movement fully absorbed, we witness a transition away from a newfound machine aesthetic influenced by German “New Objectivity” (Neue Sachlichkeit) and characteristic of what Karen Lucic called a “cult of the machine” toward a directly politicized, documentary, and agitational function for photography. In the case of the photographer Horino Masao, we may recognize a shift from discrete photographs exemplifying his concept of a “machine eye” to a more politicized, narrative-based variant of photomontage, what Horino referred to as “graph montage.” As Taniguchi Eri explains, the graph montage “is governed by a particular ‘theme’ and, in order to convey the ‘theme’ as a story, is designed to form a sequence so that there will be a continuity not only within the same page but also between pages” (15). Horino himself proposed the graph montage as “a method employed to create, by freely compiling interesting pictures spontaneously, a collection of photographs that are more interesting than the individual photographs alone” (quoted in Taniguchi, 15).
Thus, it is no coincidence that while, as Takeba Joe recounts, Horino’s 1932 collection The Character of Greater Tokyo (Dai Tōkyō no seikaku) “evoked a sense of speed and offered a hymn to the bright side of urban modernism,” in his subsequent photomontage book, Flowing Through the Capital: Sumida River Album, a collaboration with the aforementioned leftist playwright and painter Murayama Tomoyoshi, “we can begin to discern Horino’s movement from an aesthetic that glorifies the city toward one that examines life on its periphery.” In this latter collection, continues Takeba, “Horino’s focus has shifted from panoramic cityscapes to the lives of the impoverished Koreans who lived along the riverbed, and the photographs as well as the accompanying captions amount to an indictment” (154).
Acknowledging the heavy influence on Horino of German neue Fotografie — to the extent that he even copied wholly the typographic layout of the “Tempo Tempo Tempo” sequence (figure 1) from Moholy-Nagy’s Dynamik der Gross-Stadt (Dynamism of the City) included in the latter’s influential 1925 text Malerei Fotografie Film — Kaneko Ryūichi similarly notes that Horino’s Greater Toyko “reflects the direct influence of László Moholy-Nagy’s ‘Typofoto,’ a combination of typography and photographs that was intended to capture the energy of the city. But the graphic montages Horino published during the following year in Hanzai kagaku (Criminalistics) exhibit a stronger socialist-realist consciousness” (“Realism” 189). It is finally this journal’s medium itself that Takeba identifies as a primary factor in limiting Horino’s project from venturing even farther: “Hanzai kagaku was not a journal of serious social criticism; it was a decadent publication that favored stories of bizarre incidents and the seedier side of the chaos of urban life” (154–55).
In his compelling treatment of Horino’s “imperial tourism” on the continent, Shota T. Ogawa characterizes the graph montage Flowing Through the Capital as “as a study of imperial geography — that is to say, an organization of space in which the macro-level movement of Korean migrant laborers intersected with the micro-level movement of the urban middle class” (paragraph 17). It is difficult to refute the ways in which colonial reticulation of space informs even his deliberately social-critical works, and Ogawa makes an important contribution by tracing a certain contextual and thematic continuity between Horino’s early montages and his later travel photography in the service of propaganda magazines. Nevertheless, I am interested in how Horino’s early montages might instead provide critical rejoinders to the overarching imperial system that overdetermined everyday life in both colony and metropolis.
Less often acknowledged in this regard is Horino’s political intervention in the subsequent montage-narrative Ready • Set • Go, published in the same journal that same year. The essay’s cover image (figure 2) is cropped from John Heartfield’s photomontage of two raised fists, one black and one white, with a caption extolling international and multiracial solidarity: “Whether black or white, in struggle unite!/We know only one race/We know only one enemy/The expropriator class.” Although Horino has excised this German text to make room to fit the modernist, angular Kanji and Katakana typeface of the work’s title, the political impact of the image remains, and Horino’s own narrative in what follows does justice to the agitational aspirations of Heartfield’s oeuvre.
Ready • Set • Go begins by contrasting Japanese society with that of Soviet Russia through a montage of sports scenes (figure 3), those of the “mad era” (kyō jidai) of Japanese sports and the “red sports” (akairo supōtsu) of the Soviet Union. The crowd of cheering Japanese fans in the spread’s central image is offset by the montage in the lower left, wherein a gigantic figure of Lenin saluting is subtended by a forward-marching line of women in exercise attire. This preliminary sports scene structures the remaining episodes’ opposition between Japan and Russia as a race between capitalism and communism, fitting with the work’s title, as the original Japanese ends with the onomatopoeic term for the starting pistol shot, don. The following images sketch metropolitan Japanese society rife with social antagonism, counterpoising scenes of cosmopolitan excess — gambling, bets on horse racing, a fist clenching a crumpled wad of bills, luxury automobiles, mobo/moga (modern boy/modern girl) fashion — alongside details of proletarian penury — job hunting, prostitution, cabarets, “nightlife” (yoru no seikatsu) and the regimentation of labor hours and public space by clocks, timecards, and trams at rush hour.
The montage’s final three spreads bring these tensions to a climax by explicitly articulating their violent culmination in world war. The first (figure 4) juxtaposes three images: two men in a knife fight; sketched silhouettes of WWI-era bayonet troops against a map as they run atop the helmet of a large skull in the foreground; and a street scene of a parade of workers on strike. These correspond to the three captions: “person to person ––” (hito to hito to); “country to country ––” (kuni to kuni to); and finally “class to class ––” (kaikyō to kaikyō to), which are then brought into contact by the intervening arc-shaped photograph of a large deep-sea fish about to swallow two smaller catfishlike species overlaid with a caption in progressively enlarged characters: “struggle and evolve!” (tōjō mo sinka suru!).
In the lower right of the next-to-last spread we find a photograph of an older man slumped against a wall together with his dog, with the caption “There’s no work!” (Shigoto ga nai!). Conversely, diagonally opposite on the top left is a Georg Grosz–like caricature of a bald, eggheadlike man donning spectacles, describing a manager in a plush office doodling in a notebook and chatting on the phone, with a caption that ironically declares “busy, busy” (isogashii, isogashii). The formal arrangement of these two images opposite each other accentuates the irrationality of a social system based on the hoarding of surpluses, as the differential measure of the two men’s respective idle time results in wealth for one and poverty for the other.
In contradistinction, the panoramic image (figure 5) laid across the lower border of the two-page spread depicts Soviet Russia under the Five-Year Plan (Gonen keikaku) indicated in the above caption, while the large-font, vertical text in the left-hand margin reads “Humanity is progressing!!” (jinrui wa senjin suru). The photomontage itself inserts against a backdrop of collectivized factory barracks a row of young men of various nationalities, with their broad chests facing toward the viewer and their eyes directed upward to the horizon, as though looking forward to the promise of a socialist future. The glimmer of hope on their faces is worlds away from the pain and sorrow in the expressions of the various suffering Japanese found in previous pages, urgently pleading for collectivization against its apocalyptic alternative.
The collection’s final page is a single, enlarged close-up of a screaming Hippopotamus and the English words “GOAL IN!” placed diagonally along the animal’s throat. The almost comical disjuncture between the collection’s grave subject matter and this primitive finale metacritically reflects on the “success” of the narrative montage in driving home its point about the necessity of progression toward socialism, but it might also assert the purported certainty of this social transformation itself, in accordance with the almost evolutionary tenor of the narrative thrust. Yet if Horino’s recourse to evolutionary themes seems to affirm a stagist theory of social development and revolution glimpsed in the final pages of Ready • Set • Go, then the contingent and fragmentary quality of photomontage pieces resist complete subsumption into this linear, teleological narrative. In other words, we could say the medium-specific qualities of montage itself allow for more free play between adjacent and contrasting images than that necessitated by the formal requirements of narrative movement.
Accordingly, we might reinterpret the work’s conclusion not as the definitive closure of a preordained logic of social development, which would quickly discredit Horino’s montage and prohibit us from applying its lessons to our present day, but instead one that effectively teases out the multiple underlying antagonisms that overdetermine society and visualizes their implications. We may, thus, better appreciate photomontage’s plasticity, its capacity to formalize the dynamic nature of social antagonisms through an equally dialectical compositional principle upheld, as we saw, by many Weimar artists and intellectuals.
This social function becomes more evident in consideration of the satirical photomontages of Yasui Nakaji and Ōkubo Koroku, which dispense with Horino’s narrative movement to formally accentuate and intensify the contradiction between simultaneous elements. Two early multiple-exposure photographs by Yasui Nakaji provide something of a deterrent to the dehumanizing tendencies latent in the machine aesthetic of Horino or Fuchikami, as they juxtapose towering mechanical forms with images of workers’ body movements and emotions and thereby more precisely ground the vast productive potential of the machine age in the expenditure of human labor power.
Consider, for example, Yasui’s 1930 Portside Scene (Kaikō fūkei; figure 6), in which a layer of several exposures superimposed onto one another force into simultaneous proximity discrete moments from the production process. We see several silhouetted workers appearing to stoke a furnace placed against the backdrop of a large ocean liner overlaid with an enormous construction crane and foiled by a wide shot of the open sea. The compositional arrangement of multiple exposures within the rectangular frame of the photomontage thereby accomplishes a telescoping of the temporal durée of manufacture, from the coal burning in the furnace, to the assembly of large steel plates and rivets by crane, to the finished product of the massive liner out at sea. Here Yasui’s treatment of the luxury liner diverges from Horino’s and Itagaki’s early work on ships, as the photomontage’s coexistence of multiple temporalities allows the work to historicize these industrial assemblages in a material process of proletarianization and labor appropriation, rather than as free-floating, innocuous architectural forms. As the curator Yuri Mitsuda writes, “The construction sites where steel girders interlock were also where laborers worked, and Yasui saw a new beauty in the dynamic interplay between steel and concrete and their muscles and sweat” (316).
This is communicated more by pathos than by historical reconstruction in Yasui’s 1931 Gaze (Gyōshi; figure 7), in which, like Portside Scene, the neck of a large crane and supporting wires diagonally traverse the rectangular composition, this time over a close-up shot of a male worker’s face. His straw hat is barely visible in the upper-left quadrant, and his left eye almost obscured by the crisscrossing beams. His sober expression borders on accusation as his right eye meets our own; the framing of his right pupil by three intersecting cables invokes Franz Roh’s Foto-auge or “photo eye” — with the triangular form doubling as a camera viewfinder — as much as it suggests the imprisonment of labor by disciplinary regimes fundamental to industrial capitalism. As such, the photographic subject here speaks back through the locus of vision shared with the viewer’s gaze; not only does the point of congruence in the subject’s pupil force recognition of what Ariella Azoulay calls photography’s “civil contract” in the forging of an empathic encounter, but the photomontage also goes further in assisting the proletariat to see through the industrial apparatuses by which it is subsumed. In both cases, whether the worker’s vision or our own, the camera qua mechanical eye mediates and enables this encounter; photography, far from the neutral force Horino’s early architectural studies implied, is instead defamiliarized as an indispensable instrument in the ideological struggle.
Yasui’s 1931 Photomontage (figure 8) extends and escalates the confrontation between labor and industry we encountered in the previous works. Yasui’s montage adopts a narrative dimension in tension with its simultaneously representational content and encrypted by the radically dislocated images, echoing Moholy-Nagy’s photomontages such as Jealousy (1927) which arrange sparse, disconnected fragments against the expansive white ground of the page, leaving plenty of intervening negative space and prompting us to scrutinize the relationships among the various elements. Andrea Nelson summarizes this thusly: “Moholy-Nagy constructs a photomontage that is more of a spatial sequence of images, where the open spaces or gaps between the mass media images play a critical role in producing meaning” (266). Further, as Patrizia McBride explains in her engagement with Moholy-Nagy’s conception of montage, “perception is thematized as an independent factor, a source of evidence that is never completely subsumed under the images’ representational content. Their narrative force thus lies in the possibility of having perception and signification converge while showcasing them as distinct moments” (6).
The focal interest at the center of Yasui’s composition consists of a trapezoidal-shaped crop of a shot taken from behind a mass of wide-brim-hat-donning workers assembled for a strike. The montage’s only textual element is the large demonstration banner reading “union” (dōmei) carried along by the crowd, verbally solidifying the montage’s dispersed elements through the gravity of class struggle. A separate shot of two manual laborers extends upward along the upper-right border of the strike scene, as the standing worker on the left cups his right hand around his mouth, as if calling out to comrades beyond the frame to join the strike. The margins of this orbital center are a series of linear industrial forms balancing the composition — the diagonally opposed crane neck and railway line, perpendicularly intersecting railway bridge supports and factory smokestacks, and a less distinguishable beam attached to a gear wheel in the lower right. These elements not only distribute the weight of the overall composition but also provide narrative clues to the setting of the centerpiece strike; the industrial tangents circumscribe and metaphorically threaten to imprison labor. But unlike Yasui’s previous multiple exposures, the narrative-montage dimension introduces the possibility of worker organization: The standoff between industry and labor is disarticulated through the possibility of a synthesis, a dialectical sublation of the two antithetical moments toward a more just working environment.
Although it does not go as far as Yasui’s photomontage in formulating a potential resolution to the class struggle, Ōkubo Koroku’s 1933 Emergency Scene (Hijōji fūkei; figure 9) creatively employs montage to render starkly visible capitalism’s radically unequal distribution of wealth. This piece stages the antinomy between surplus and destitution along two diagonal axes at two corresponding levels or scales of opposition. The first, between the far upper left and the lower right, contrasts the image of a mass of working men overlaid by the bold numerals “2,303,000,000¥” with an array of wooden barrels at bottom right. The itinerancy and precarity of the presumably unemployed masses of men are thereby in discord with the stable repository of commodity wealth below. The second interplay, toward the center of the composition, resonates on a more immediate emotional register, drawing a parallel between a young impoverished boy wearing a newsboy cap whose anguished, dirty face conveys the injuries of class, and the parallel, feminized workforce of hostesses in an upper-class café or bar serving champagne to customers. These two oppositions are then mediated by the industrial architecture of factories and warehouses filling the remaining compositional space.
Unlike Yasui’s document of labor struggle, Ōkubo’s montage remains an exposé of the internal contradictions of capitalism without proposing a means of intervention to offset them. One interesting feature of Emergency Scene, however, is the textual element of two banners describing currency exchange toward the center of the composition, with the taller of the two listing “gold, silver, and platinum,” as if to index and quantify the counterpoising scenes and mediate them as currency, the means of universal exchange. The two white signs are seconded by the twin industrial towers below and echoed by the twin rice lanterns in the luxury setting, as if to suggest the metamorphosis of capital from production to consumption, the neighboring masses of unemployed and desperate notwithstanding.
By the mid-1930s, the combination of military power and the intensification of the global depression prompted the rise of state censorship of the arts, discouraging or banning outright critical perspectives under the Peace Preservation Law (chian ijihō). The socially engaged art marked by the photomontages discussed above, in addition to the straight photography of Horino and Yasui’s respective images of the 1932 May Day demonstration in Tokyo, for example, soon gave way to a widespread depoliticization, or, in the case of “ideological conversion” (tenkō), repoliticization through official state channels. After the “New Photography” journals Shinkō shashin kenkyū (New photography research) and Kōga ceased publication, in 1932 and 1933, respectively, Horino Masao began his career as a commercial photojournalist, taking pictures of women for his 1938 publication Elegance of Women (entitled “How to Photograph Women”; in Japanese, Joseibi no utsushi kata) and undertaking state-sponsored trips to Korea and Manchuria for propaganda purposes. Horino’s former colleagues from Kōga, Ina Nobuo and Kimura Ihee, went on to found the overseas-oriented periodical NIPPON in 1934, directly and indirectly offering their skills as first-rate photojournalists in service of imperial Japan’s expansionism.
Unlike in Germany and the USSR, however, where this transition from independent, avant-garde experimentation toward state-directed propaganda unfolded concurrently, in Japan a small group of surrealists maintained a degree of artistic autonomy in spite of increasing state repression. The turn inward in photographic practice among this coterie of surrealists, probing psychological depths and experimenting with chance encounters, needs to be situated as the dialectical counterpart to the expanded public role of photography as a journalistic means in the militarized society writ large.
For example, the Tokyo-based surrealist Ei-Q is best known for his experiments with the avant-garde technique of the photogram pioneered by Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy. Ei-Q equally delved into surrealist photomontages that, though resembling Hannah Höch’s Dadaist collages, find perhaps their closest counterpart in the works of Bauhaus-affiliated Czech photo-artist Karel Teige, which, in Matthew S. Witkovsky’s words, are populated by “the ubiquitous presence of fragmentary female nudes” (198). The western Kansai region of Japan witnessed an unprecedented fervor of surrealist activity into the late 1930s.
The Ashiya Camera Club was one group of such surrealism-inflected artists, who facilitated the innovative multiple exposures by Nakayama Iwata and collage surfaces rife with surrealist dépaysement, or radical juxtaposition, in the work of Hanawa Gingo, such as his well-known Concept of Machinery of the Creator (1931). The Osaka-based avant-garde photography group Tanpei, including notable members Yasui Nakaji and Hirai Terushichi, organized several exhibitions throughout the decade and published its groundbreaking photography collection Light (Hikari) in 1940. This collection is replete with barren landscapes and natural forms often distorted in a surrealist vein through the displacements of photomontage, evading and deflating the contemporaneous photo-documentary aesthetic celebrating Japanese militarism and racial superiority.
Ashiya photomonteur Hanaya Kanbee’s untitled montage of 1933 (figure 10) situates the characteristic “new woman” (or modan garu, the Japanese transliteration of “modern girl”) within an economy of desire and commodification. The counterclockwise movement begun by the three separate exposures of a short-haired, bare-shouldered modan garu from top right to lower left of the composition is brought full circle by the superimposed exposure of a neon sign, which traces the shape of a martini glass with a female figure seated in a suggestive pose on its rim. The completion of this circular trajectory by an ostentatious icon of urban modernity and leisure thereby describes the concomitant social metamorphosis of woman subject into commoditized object.
Accordingly, Hanaya’s work thematizes the reifying gaze of the camera itself, as it forges an association between the woman as object of photographic voyeurism, a kind of mannequin attracting customers to such sites of consumption in the form of café hostess or bar girl, and the fully inanimate personification of advertising as such, the neon sign. Although Japanese modernist photography was, overall, populated almost exclusively by men, Hanaya’s critical defamiliarization of the gender dynamics of photographic spectatorship might provide a corrective to, say, contemporary Nojima Yasuzō’s numerous unreflexive portraits of women.
Koishi Kiyoshi’s 1933 publication of experimental photographs, Early Summer Nerves (Shoka shinkei), caused a stir with its abstract images accompanied by short, surrealist-inflected poems, defying the widespread consensus about photography’s social role with its emphasis on individual psychology and expression. As Yuri Matsuda writes, in contrast to Yasui Nakaji, Koishi’s “[S]killful use of new techniques [brought] photography as deeply as possible into a subjective interior world,” whereas Yasui, “while seeking new ways of seeing and developing a powerfully subjective style, was compelled to connect them to social and ontological realism” (317). In 1936, Koishi published his follow-up to Early Summer Nerves, a primer of sorts for aspiring amateur photographers entitled Shooting — A New Method for Composition (Satsusei — sakuga no shingihō), which outlined at least seven types of photomontage, among them “simultaneous montage” (dōjisei montaju) and various techniques of multiple exposure.
Koishi’s Self-Gaze (Jigi gyōshi; figure 11), the eighth plate from Early Summer Nerves, channels interwar Japanese society’s structural violence toward a defamiliarization of the photographic medium. Koishi’s explanatory notes describe how he smashed with a nail the glass plate of the original close-up exposure taken of his friend’s eye, then rephotographed the damaged plate to produce an entirely new print, anticipating the surrealist photographer Man Ray’s shattered 1938 portrait of Max Ernst. While Koishi’s Self-Gaze remains a singular photograph and not a document whose surface has been manipulated by superimposition of montage fragments or the result of a double exposure, the final product of Self-Gaze nevertheless serves to metacritically disclose the photographic medium’s complicated chemical and technical processes. Subtly working against Ina Nobuo’s and Horino Masao’s enthusiasm for the camera itself as a mechanized, prosthetic vision adequate to the industrial era, Koishi’s multi-stage work reveals the importance of the darkroom and developing procedures in photography’s creative practice and not the camera equipment or singular instant of shutter action alone.
Responding to Yasui’s own Gaze, with the subtraction of any material artifacts apart from the subject’s own skin, Koishi’s work removes the frame of reference from direct historical association — introduced by Yasui with the crane apparatus and laborer’s hat — and into a purely intersubjective realm. The already modernist composition, zooming even more than German new photographer Max Burchartz’s 1928 portrait Lotte (Eyes) with its extreme close-up of the subject’s left eye and eyebrow, is enough to isolate the referent from any social context. Interestingly, this proximity and its interplay of light and shadow exposes the subject’s pores, moles, and other imperfections on the skin’s oily surface, thus distinguishing the work from contemporaneous commercial portrait photography, particularly that of women, serving to elevate the human form into an idealized, sensualized object of libidinal cathexis.
Self-Gaze’s most conspicuous feature, the fracture in the glass plate otherwise invisible and isomorphic with the photographic print itself, further contributes to the hindrance of successful intersubjective affirmation. The shattering glass readily introduces the element of societal violence and trauma, yet the epicenter of the splintering glass is localized and suggests a targeted, precise blow, such as a gunshot, rather than an uncontrolled outburst of underlying primordial or instinctual rage. The work thereby ascribes to violence a certain logic, suggesting its malleability and historical specificity, as opposed to any genetic characteristic or innate drive. The site of the trauma just misses the eyeball, threatening to impair the subject’s vision and thus impede consciousness of his historicity. One bold fracture even slices through the subject’s pupil in a diagonal movement radiating outward to the right-hand border of the frame.
Noticeably, the composition’s two most overexposed points are found in the bright whites of the microscopic splinters around the rim of the glass fracture and in the catchlight reflecting off the subject’s pupil. Because these two formally parallel instances were originally imposed from outside the frame, as it were, we have a metacritical interrogation of the photograph’s medium specificity. Whereas Henri Cartier-Bresson was later to declare the photojournalistic apprehension of the “decisive moment” as the medium’s sole purpose and Roland Barthes recognized photography’s unchallenged capacity, as the “clock for seeing” (15), to freeze a singular instant for posterity, Koishi’s multilayered exposures instead reevaluate photography’s potential — including that of the darkroom — as the convergence of multiple moments and temporalities.
The extended process of exposure and development creatively employed by Koishi refutes the notion that photography merely spatializes time; it can, in fact, index the imprints of several actors at various discrete moments, remaining relevant to historical analysis on multiple textural and textual levels. For example, we might be encouraged to consider how the lighting environment in the case of the second exposure — that of the fractured glass slide — either reappeared or was eclipsed in the process. Similarly, the catchlight on the subject’s pupil from the original exposure is twice removed; we are looking at not merely a singular reflection from outside the frame, but in fact the constellation of two separate stars. Accordingly, this artistic creation asks us to consider the mediation of historical facticity by technologies of seeing; no positive material is ever readily visible beyond the intervention of historically specific discursive frames.
As a result, the effect of this fractured composition is to redirect the viewer’s attention to the surface of the photographic plane, and much like the tangential gaze, foreclosing the possibility of unobstructed access to either the subject’s active psychic, emotional disposition, or unconscious desire as frozen in a singular moment. We are compelled to query the complex interchange among viewer, subject, art object, and historical context in a more involved mode of appreciation than that afforded by the hypostatized intersubjective encounter into which the work at first appears to interpellate the viewer. Because the mechanical photographic medium is itself something historical, the shutter release a register of the elapsing of real time, the reflection of skylight the imprint of the real world on the eye’s pupil, and the shattering of glass a means to break the spell cast by the photographic illusion, Koishi’s Self-Gaze asserts the photograph’s facticity and historicity as a contemporaneous document as much as it invites surrealistic introspection of unconscious or latent psychic forces. Accordingly, violence may be reinscribed as a historical phenomenon, thus countering the proto-fascist tenets emergent at the time that posited an innate, biological predisposition for human aggression and competition.
Although pockets of surrealist activity persisted into the late 1930s and early ‘40s, among, for example, the poet and critic Takiguchi Shūzō’s cohort in Tokyo, the dominant tendency by this time was photojournalism in the service of Japan’s war effort and imperialist ambitions. In this final section, I will address how photomontage — ostensibly an instrument of defamiliarization and progressive recalibration of perception — could be successfully employed as a means of ideological conscription and wartime mobilization without fundamentally altering or contradicting its formal requirements. Here I would like to reconsider Benjamin H. D. Buchloh’s conclusion in the case of Nazi Germany, that “the principles of photomontage are completely abandoned once the technique of the photomural is employed for the propaganda purposes of the German fascists” (112).
In her nuanced analysis of the 1938 illustrated magazine NIPPON, oriented toward viewers overseas and appearing in several European languages, Gennifer Weisenfeld notes how the magazine’s “designers used a host of sophisticated modernist visual techniques, including an array of stunning photomontages, as a means of enticing the Western tourist to authenticate Japan by experiencing ‘the world-as-exhibition’” (241). Nevertheless, Weisenfeld contends, in contradiction to photomontage’s defamiliarizing effects, “claims to reportorial accuracy belied the extent to which the photographs were actually manipulated to produce the sensation of ‘unmediated reality’” (244).
What, then, are we to make of cases in which photomontages were published that clearly did pronounce their constructed, manipulated status? Weisenfeld examines one such instance among the pages of NIPPON, a montage of uniformed sailors in the imperial Japanese navy on the deck of a battleship, emblazoned by a large rising sun flag spread taut in the wind, and flanked by a long shot of another battleship in the top left and several fighter planes in the top right (figure 12). Weisenfeld observes how “[t]wo discrete but seamlessly woven views of the sailors at attention create a sharply receding perspectival view of the entire corps; the viewer is addressed directly as the figures stand at attention on the deck of their ship under the resplendently waving rising sun flag” (257).
The manipulated photograph here works to hail the viewer and impose the military might of Japan’s armed forces. Weisenfeld notes that “[t]his is perhaps one of the most engaging images in the collection because the open deck of the ship draws the viewer into the pictorial space” and the fragmentary quality of the montage intensifies the reality effect through the “multiperspectival viewpoint” of the duplicated bugler, for example, which augments perceptual experience rather than transparently reproducing it. Here the propagandist aims of sublime representation and fragmentation of reality — rather than its unmanipulated replication — are not necessarily at odds with one another.
Benjamin H. D. Buchloh has contended that the use of photomontage by the propaganda wing of the National Socialist party in Germany divested it of its critical purchase, in particular by subduing or obscuring the fragmentary quality of discrete montage elements to create a unified, internally coherent compositional whole. Buchloh’s acute observations are corroborated by his selection of Herbert Bayer’s 1936 Photomontage for the Exhibition “Deutschland Ausstellung,” congealing the montage’s discrete frames portraying crowds of German subjects into a mass ornament and exemplifying a “panoramic” or “unified spatial perspective” that “naturalizes the perspective of governance and control” (114).
In Buchloh’s analysis, the grounds for the transition from dialectic to monadic composition were already laid in Soviet montage of the early 1930s, with what he calls the “gradual return to the iconic functions of the photograph, deleting altogether the indexical potential of the photograph” (103). That is, for Buchloh, photography’s referential component, which was seen as a strength for social documentary–inclined artists, always already ran the risk of appropriation for uncritically representational purposes, suppressing its self-reflexivity, what he calls its “indexical” quality. In Dada, for example, Buchloh writes that “the network of cuts and lines of jutting edges and unmediated transitions from fragment to fragment was as important, if not more so, as the actual iconic representation contained within the fragment itself” (103). Conversely, he concludes that these formal elements come to be overshadowed by the photograph’s direct social referentiality in Soviet Constructivist and later Nazi montages.
In Gustav Klutsis’s account, “In the USSR, photomontage appeared on the ‘left’ front of art once the vogue for subjectless art had been overcome. Agitation art required realistic representation created with maximum perfection of technique, possessing graphic clarity and intensity of effect” (116). Thus, what Klutsis understood as a progressive move away from pure formalism toward a radical implementation of avant-garde montage techniques for agitational purposes, Buchloh reads as dialectically both progressive and regressive, equally sowing the seeds for social activism and later commandeering photomontage for totalitarian propaganda. Katerina Romanenko’s study of 1930s Soviet illustrated periodicals corroborates Buchloh’s historical gloss: “With growing attacks on formal experimentation, former ‘constructivists’ had to find proper justification for their formalist ideas and prove the relevancy of photomontage to Soviet society. Eventually, the privileging of social content over formal experimentation prevailed, corresponding to the general shift of preferences in Soviet visual arts” (35).
What I hope to demonstrate below through my discussion of Japanese wartime propaganda is that the qualities to which Buchloh ascribes montage’s indexical, as opposed to iconic, functions are not by any means definitive or ahistorical. That is to say, the formally determined features of the artwork in Buchloh’s analysis — such as the critical, defamiliarizing potential of multiple simultaneous perspectives — may in fact have more to do with historical context and aesthetic or informational content than they do merely to form alone.
We might take here as a counterexample Sabine Kriebel’s analysis of John Heartfield. Echoing Buchloh, she discerns that “[w]hereas the aesthetics of rupture emphasizes the fissures between parts and revels in a discordant materiality, the language of suture, or visual seamlessness, aims to disguise them, producing an uncanny illusionism” (11). However, recognizing that many of Heartfield’s most successful montages employ the very “suturing” techniques Buchloh criticizes, Kriebel describes how Heartfield’s “photomontages stage our illusory, unstable apprehension of the world by exploiting the discourses of illusion, of false cognition, by engaging in and reproducing its very terms. Heartfield’s work functions within the conventions of photographic practice while subverting them, thus questioning the privileged place of photography in the construction of consciousness” (12). It is therefore possible for these putatively antagonistic techniques of fragmentation and suture to trade places and take on new semiotic functions, depending on a variety of contextual factors.
Consideration of Japanese fascist montages may contribute to this discussion by suggesting not only that fascism need not significantly alter montage’s principles to achieve its propaganda aims, but also that these very principles are historically mutable and equally influenced by structuring ideological discourses and the iconic photographic referents themselves. In light of this proposition, Iet us briefly consider once more the naval montage discussed by Weisenfeld. As she observes, the leading lines of the battleship deck produce a sense of depth more than the horizontal stretch establishes panoramic breadth. Further, the angular, L-shaped intersection of the two rows of sailors produces competing viewpoints, and these are complicated by other elements in light of this proposition — the reiterations of the bugler; the ship’s protruding beam; the diverging battleship and airplanes; the extension of the imperial flag. It is therefore difficult to say that here, in an instance of fascist, totalitarian propaganda, a panoramic or bird’s-eye view threatens to eclipse photomontage’s fragmentariness or contingency. By no means is the viewer presented with a formally unmanipulated or seamless composition, and yet it is indisputable that the work succeeds in representing the military might and elegant precision of the Japanese navy, an ideologically consistent message.
Here, the manner in which montage is interpreted by the viewer is not a matter of technique alone; it is also structured by a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors, content and political context key among them. In the case of the Japanese naval montage, what Buchloh has perceived as “naturalization” in fascist representations of the collective is accomplished in large part by the uniformity in photographic content. For example, the shared, reverent facial expressions of the numerous sailors at attention form a concerted emotional appeal, even if in formal, compositional terms they are facing in different directions. In addition, the juxtapositions of impressive, almost majestic military equipment and weaponry lack a countervailing element, such as an image of Chinese or Burmese suffering at the hands of Japanese militarism, say, that might offset the affirmative tenor of the work as a whole.
I do not mean to claim, however, that the Japanese never resorted to formal manipulation to contrive for ideological purposes a false conciliation or compositional unity. We may consider on this point Hamaya Hiroshi’s foreboding accumulation of tanks in battle formation in a deceptively realistic photomontage panorama viewed from above, featured in issue no. 14 of the propaganda journal Front in 1944. According to John Clark, Hamaya “writes in his autobiography about the manipulation of images to make multiple figures of tanks to imply overwhelming material force” (paragraph 30).
I would like to conclude this discussion by turning to one last military montage, featured in issue 14 of Front, which heightens the opposition between ideological unity and compositional disjuncture. This work features a wide-angle shot taken at eye level on an airfield runway as numerous Zero fighters prepare to take flight (figure 13). Arranged slightly below the vantage point from which perspectival space in the fighter-plane image would naturally recede is a row of fighter pilots in full combat gear, posed in an austere salute as they gaze off in the distance to the upper left, resembling the line of Soviet citizens on the penultimate spread of Horino’s Ready • Set • Go but directed toward radically different political ends. The photograph of the pilots appears to be shot in redscale — that is, exposing the underside of the film roll first — as their figures are illuminated by a maroon glow that brightly contrasts with the subdued black and white scale of the airplanes. Furthermore, although the photo of the pilots is taken from about waist level looking upward, conveying the patriotic resolve of these brave fighters, it is evident that their portraits are cropped and pasted onto the airfield print, as some unedited white negative space remains visible behind their shoulders and under their saluting arms.
The effect of this pastiche of images, whether or not it was deliberate, only works to intensify the incongruity between the two divergent perspectives, one confronting the viewer and the other projecting outward, vanishing into the depths of the skies. I suggest that the juxtaposition of these two countervailing directionalities works to ideologically resolve the opposition between domestic and international essential to the modern territorial nation-state, as the frontal pose of the courageous pilots reassures Japanese viewers and secures their confidence in the war effort, while the planes’ forward thrust symbolizes the necessity of exporting Japan’s power abroad through imperialist aggression. Significantly, this ideological consensus is reached formally but not through compositional seamlessness; rather, disjunction between elements plays a pivotal role. That is to say, in the montage’s ideological field, this domestic/international dichotomy can only be subsumed under the auspices of the Japanese empire by first positing difference through highly visible splicing of unmediated photographic fragments. Consequently, the work’s full meaning is revealed as a dialectic between formal rupture and ideological suture, and not simply the result of a formal intervention alone.
We have now seen how the Japanese reception of photomontage techniques then circulating in Europe concurrently evolved from a method first formalizing the velocity and energy of industrial progress, then mobilized as a weapon of social critique, later directed inward to reveal the contours of a split subjectivity, and finally adopted by the imperial state. Although the originality of each work necessitates special consideration, I nevertheless find that the category of photomontage is broad enough to accommodate each under a generalizable set of core techniques. I postulate that photomontage’s considerable transformation through these episodes did not significantly alter its core tenets, but instead demonstrates the malleability and effectiveness of photomontage as a tool of graphic communication. As such, and despite the relative disappearance of montage techniques among an array of photographic practices in Japan and elsewhere in recent years, we may recognize the ways in which the artistic form of photomontage vastly enriched the visual field of modernizing Europe and Japan, for better and for worse, by serving as a fulcrum in the ideological and material struggle over the social form of things to come.
Author’s Note: I would like to thank curator Fujimura Satomi, Noriko Kitadai, and the wonderful staff of the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum Library as well as curator Asaki Yuka and the library staff at the Museum of Modern Art, Hayama for their generous assistance locating and photocopying materials.
Kevin Michael Smith earned his PhD in comparative literature from the University of California Davis in March 2019. His research centers on modernist literature and visual art from colonial Korea and interwar Japan.
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