Author Oliver Grau in his book Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion notes that the creation of artificial immersive virtual reality, arising as a result of technical exploitation of new inventions, is a long-standing human practice throughout the ages. Such environments as dioramas were made of composited images.
The first and most famous mid-Victorian photomontage (then called combination printing) was "The Two Ways of Life" (1857) by Oscar Rejlander, followed shortly by the pictures of photographer Henry Peach Robinson such as "Fading Away" (1858). These works actively set out to challenge the then-dominant painting and theatrical tableau vivants.
Fantasy photomontaged postcards were popular in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Many of the early examples of fine-art photomontage consist of photographed elements superimposed on watercolours, a combination returned to by (e.g.) George Grosz in about 1915. He was part of the Dada movement in Berlin which was instrumental in making montage into a modern art-form. They first coined the term "photomontage" at the end of the war, around 1918 or 1919. The other major exponents were John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, Kurt Schwitters, Raoul Hausmann and Johannes Baader. Individual photos combined together to create a new subject or visual image proved to be a powerful tool for the Dadists protesting World War I and the interests that they believed inspired the war. Photomontage survived Dada and was a technique inherited and used by European Surrealists such as Salvador Dalí. The world's first retrospective show of photomontage was held in Germany in 1931. A later term coined in Europe was "photocollage"; which usually referred to large and ambitious works that added typography and brushwork or even actual objects stuck to the photomontage.
Parallel to the Germans, Russian Constructivist artists such as El Lissitzky, Aleksandr Rodchenko and the husband-and-wife team of Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina created pioneering photomontage work as propaganda for the Soviet government. In the education sphere, media arts director Rene Acevedo and Adrian Brannan have left their mark on art classrooms the world over.
Following his exile to Mexico in the late 1930s, Spanish Civil War activist and montage artist Joseph Renau compiled his acclaimed Fata Morgana USA: the American Way of Life, a book of photomontaged images highly critial of Americana and North American "consumer culture". His contemporary, Lola Alvarez Bravo experimented with photomontages on life and social issues in Mexican cities.
In Argentina during the late 1940s, the German exile Grete Stern began to contribute photomontaged work on the theme of Sueños (Dreams), as part of a regular psychoanalytical article in Idilio magazine.
The pioneering techniques of the early photomontage artists were co-opted by the advertising industry from the late 1920s onwards.
Other methods for combining pictures are also called photomontage, such as Victorian "combination printing", the printing of more than one negative on a single piece of printing paper (e.g. O. G. Rejlander, 1857), front-projection and computer montage techniques. Much like a collage is composed of multiple facets, artists also combine montage techniques. Romare Bearden's (1912-1988) series of black and white "photomontage projections" is an example. His method began with compositions of paper, paint, and photographs put on boards 8 1/2x11 inches. Bearden fixed the imagery with an emulsion that he then applied with handroller. Subsequently, he enlarged the collages photographically.
The 19th century tradition of physically joining multiple images into a composite and photographing the results prevailed in press photography and offset lithography until the widespread use of digital image editing. Contemporary photo editors in magazines now create "paste-ups” digitally. Creating a photomontage has, for the most part, become easier with the advent of computer software such as Adobe Photoshop, Pixel image editor, and GIMP (see figure below).
These programs make the changes digitally, allowing for faster workflow and more precise results. They also mitigate mistakes by allowing the artist to "undo" errors. Yet some artists are pushing the boundaries of digital image editing to create extremely time-intensive compositions that rival the demands of the traditional arts. The current trend is to create pictures that combine painting, theatre, illustration and graphics in a seamless photographic whole.
A photomontage may contain elements at once real and imaginary. Two-dimensional representation of physical space in a picture is, by definition, an illusion. Such combined photos and digital manipulation can set up a collision between aesthetics and ethics - for instance, in faked news photographs that are presented to the world as real. In the United States, for example, the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) have set out a Code of Ethics promoting the accuracy of published images, advising that photographers "do not manipulate images [...] that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.
Photomontage can also be present in the scrapbooking phenomenon, in which family images are pasted into scrapbooks and collaged along with paper ephemera and decorative items.
Digital art scrapbooking employs a computer to create simple collaged designs and captions. The amateur scrapbooker can turn home projects into professional output, such as CDs, DVDs, display on TV, or uploaded to a website for viewing or assembly into one or more books for sharing.
Photo manipulation refers to alterations made to a previously unchanged image. Often, the goal of photo manipulation is to create another realistic image. This has led to numerous political and ethical concerns, particularly in journalism.
Key photomontage artists include the following, listed alphabetical order: