3.17 / Review

Experimental Photomontage

By Genevieve Quick June 14, 2012

Robert Heinecken and Edmund Teske: Experimental Photomontage at Robert Koch Gallery showcases two distinct voices in contemporary American photography that used similar processes to very different ends. Heinecken’s bold photograms and lithographs—composed of imagery and text from advertisements, soft-core porn magazines, and other printed matter—reflect the artist as an appropriator who intentionally mirrors the cultural conditions in which the work is produced. In contrast, Teske’s montages of people and places, sourced from his own negatives along with found postcards and re-photographed images, suggest a more Romantic view of the artist as a privileged communicator of a decidedly personal perspective.

Heinecken’s sexually suggestive work offers a troubling reflection of the representation of women in mass media. Recto/Verso (1989) is a portfolio of color prints Heinecken made by directly exposing backlit magazine pages to photographic paper, in lieu of a negative, resulting in a composite of both sides of the original printed page. While magazine readers would see the images sequentially as they turn the pages, Heinecken’s photograms fuse them into single pictures. In one of the most charged photograms in the series, the profile of a woman drinking from a phallic bottle is superimposed on an image of a woman biting on a strand of pearls. Heinecken makes explicit the casual sexism embedded in the images created by advertising firms and their clients by creating a before-and-after narrative of fellatio, visually punning on the double meanings of the bottle and the pearl necklace.

Using the same technique as Recto/Verso, Heinecken’s black-and-white lithographic series Are You Rea (1969) features a more abstract play between text and image. In contrast to the color prints in Recto/Verso, the back faces of the pages used to make Are You Rea appear in reversed values, where the lights are dark and darks are light. Heinecken’s use of high contrast and severe cropping obscures and sometimes pointedly comments on the source image’s original format and content. For example, in one image we see the back of a woman’s leg as she’s bent over, on all fours. Her upside-down face hangs between her arms while rilling seems to emerge from her mouth, as if recently freed from a speech bubble. Because of the different values on both sides of the page, the “t” and the “h” in thrilling are overexposed to the point of illegibility and essentially cut off by the contour of the woman’s inner thigh. Bold text at the bottom of the page reads:

ad man
do it justice.
Then in smaller font:

Edmund Teske. Jane Lawrence composite, Zuma Beach, California, 1944, 1947, 1960s; gelatin silver print; 6 3/4 x 9 1/2 in. Image courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco.
Robert Heinecken. From the portfolio Recto/Verso, 1989; Cibachrome (dye destruction) photogram; 11 x 14 in. Image courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco.

This photogram reveals Heinecken’s complicated relationship with mass media as a critic, consumer, and appropriator. Using the original ad’s copy (“Compare./carefully”), Heinecken directs the viewer to compare the image that he has produced with the original. Heinecken’s purposeful cropping alerts the viewer to the incompleteness within his images, thereby suggesting that there’s always more to the message than what’s on display.

In contrast to Heinecken’s appropriation of then-current media, Teske’s soft-focus images are throwbacks to archaic representations of women as either objects of sexual desire or maternal figures. In Teske’s Jane Lawrence composite, Zuma Beach, California (1960s) a woman reclines against rocks in the manner of a classical nude. She cradles a phallic piece of driftwood that seems to both emerge from and enter her midriff, suggesting birth or intercourse. Additionally, in Francis Walker Montrose composite Mono Lake (1976), the titular subject appears to hover over Mono Lake: a matronly apparation with her hair pulled back and wearing a Victorian lace bertha. Placed among the clouds, the woman takes on an all-seeing or spirit-like aspect. Bill Allard, Vicky Palermo composite with Poppy (1964), in contrast, is a picture of sexual desire. Teske superimposed a dreamy blanket of poppies over the image of the titular nude couple, with Allard admiring Palermo posed in front of a window. With their juxtapositions of natural elements, historical references, and dream-like aesthetic, Teske’s images present stereotypical representations of womanhood without question. Without challenging or taking apart these ideas in the way that Heinecken’s photograms subvert the language of advertising, Teske’s images come off as historic relics that lack any critical dialogue.

Heinecken’s and Teske’s works fall within the tradition of experimenting with photographic processes, particularly in the vein of Man Ray. Heinecken’s appropriations of mass media are formally complex interventions of his found sources, played out via page selection, cropping, and exposure time. But whereas Heinecken’s layered images invite a wider discussion about how sexuality and gender are both constructed and consumed within popular culture, Teske pursued a Romantic personal narrative through a photomontage process that took in anything he could photograph or rephotograph. Unfortunately, despite Teske’s innovative contributions to the medium, his restatements of the gender conventions of classical portraiture don’t make his work compelling from a contemporary perspective.


Robert Heinecken & Edmund Teske: Experimental Photomontage is on view at Robert Koch Gallery, in San Francisco, though June 30.

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