Deutsche Börse photography prize goes to... a collage artist?

Why, yes! John Stezaker's work says as much about photography as any photograph.

In an unconventional turn of events on Monday evening, one of the most prestigious international photography prizes was swept up not by a man who takes photographs, but by a man who cuts them up.

The Deutsche Börse photography prize is an award given annually for a European book or exhibition during the previous year.  Much has already been made of the fact that collage artist John Stezaker – whose retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery won him the award – can claim to be the first artist to take home the £30,000 prize without ever taking the lens cap off a camera.

The British artist, now 53, has been making collage for over 30 years, though only recently has his work received critical recognition.  This award could be called his greatest achievement thus far - not only because it further validates his contribution to the art world, but because of the boundaries it breaks within the photographic discipline. Photographer or not, the judge's decision is a moment for the medium, an acknowledgment of a slackening of boundaries and demarcations.

Often sidelined as a “craftsy” approach to art making, collage work tends to come second when held alongside the more “serious” practice of photography - an offshoot perhaps, but certainly not within the definition. Despite having worked intimately with photographs for several decades, Stezaker has spoken of being “spurned” by other photographers who considered his meticulous, hand-cut technique (a scalpel is his tool of choice) as “defacing”.

He told the Guardian last month: “When people say I'm not a real photographer, I tell them I work with the medium rather than in it. In the internet age, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the producers and the consumers of images. I see my work as merging these two worlds.”

Brett Rogers - director of the Photographers' Gallery, which hosted the competition - has offered similar support for the artist's right to be judged amongst the more conventional photographers up for the prize.

"Of course he is [a photographer]" she said after the decision was announced.  "He has found his way to use photography to reveal the subversive force of the image; he creates new meanings which can be disturbing and funny and meaningful at the same time."

It is, however, this need to defend that illuminates the importance of the whole affair. I hope it may be the last time a talent like Stezaker's must mount a defence against those who seek to draw hard lines around an art form that has long been a home for new ideas.

To debate the status of collage as photographic art in today's world feels absurd. Photographers have, for a long while now, been using much more than a camera to produce the images that hang on a gallery wall. From lighting the set to framing the shot, from developing in the dark room to editing on computer screen, photography has always been about the tweaking, hacking, rearranging and retouching that goes into creating a desired image. Overexposed, underexposed, black and white, full bleed, Photoshopped, saturated, filtered - the ways in which the modern photograph can be manipulated runs on and on. What ties it all together under the neat title of photography is merely the unifying notion that it all started with a camera, whatever the end result may be.

Stezaker's sharp-witted composites - with their uncanny blends, ingenious and disconcerting couplings – are exactly the sort images we expect from great contemporary photography: eye-catching, highly styled, with a cohesive, signature sense of vision. His work speaks volumes about the nature of the photograph, of the artifice of image-making, of the humour inherent within things of great beauty.

His tools may be old school, but his cut-and-paste ethos is right in tune with the tale of the modern photograph - and well worthy of a slow, lingering look.

(She (Film Portrait Collage) III, John Stezaker, 2008)

 

(Untitled XXVI, John Stezaker, 2007)

 

(Marriage (Film Portrait Collage) XLV, John Stezaker, 2007)

 

(Untitled XXII, John Stezaker, 2007)

 

(He (Film Portrait Collage) II, John Stezaker, 2008)

Marriage I, a collage by John Stezaker (2006)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

HELEN SLOAN / THE FALL 3 LTD
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The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories