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.

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The non-fiction novel that takes readers inside the head of Raoul Moat

Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, but its semi-fictional world is something more complex.

In July 2010, just weeks after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron expanded upon his vision for the “Big Society” that he had first unveiled at the 2009 party conference. It promised a “big advance for people power”, in which individuals would be responsible for their actions. “To be British is to be sceptical of authority and the powers that be,” he told conference. “There is a ‘we’ in politics, and not just a ‘me’.”

That same month, just two days after being released from HMP Durham for the assault of a child, the self-employed gardener and former doorman Raoul Moat shot and injured his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart and killed her boyfriend Chris Brown, who he wrongly believed to be a policeman. Moat went on the run, shooting a policeman at point-blank range, then fleeing to the rural Northumberland town of Rothbury. For a week, the story of this exotically named, delusional man who left behind a wealth of material, including letters and four-hour-long Dictaphone recordings, was given joint top billing with Cameron’s “Big Society” – soon to be as dead and buried as Moat, who, cornered by police after a seven-day hunt, killed himself.

The journalist Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, yet really is a non-fiction novel, in which writer and reader squat inside a mind that moves from irrational anger and self-pity to despondency. Moat’s is a solipsistic narration, in which he is the perennial victim – of circumstance, enemies, authoritarian bureaucracy, police harassment and past lovers. There is little room here for the outside world. Like most outlaws, Moat believed that everyone had failed him. “All my life I wanted death,” he laments.

The real-life Moat story, however, was more than that of a lone fugitive. It was also about rolling news coverage and Facebook groups, some of which celebrated Moat as a Ned Kelly-type folk hero – a “#ledge”. When Cameron denounced him in parliament he inadvertently elevated Moat to a clearer anti-authoritarian position: the antithesis of a “Big Society” citizen, in fact. It is also the story of the Northumbria Police force, which did its very best to show that it had everything under control when it really didn’t.

And, bringing an element of farce to a tragedy, it featured the subplot of a thoroughly leathered Paul Gascoigne – the most exciting and idiosyncratic footballer of his generation – tearing through the countryside in a taxi with a fishing rod, a dressing gown and a rotisserie chicken in an attempt to bring a sense of calm to the situation. “All I want to do is shout, ‘Moaty, it’s  Gazza! Where are you?’” he explained en route during a live radio phone-in. “And I guarantee he will shout his name out: ‘I’m here.’” Gascoigne’s pantomime intervention added to the chaos: now another disenfranchised northern male was running amok. The parallels were evident: Gazza’s career had been beset by injury and alcoholism, Moat’s bodybuilder’s physique was no longer in prime condition after weight loss in prison. Both were separated from their families and prone to self-examination. Onlookers knew it could quite easily have been Gazza holed up in those woods.

Other exponents of the non-fiction novel such as Norman Mailer and Gordon Burn would surely have put all this in, yet Hankinson chooses not to cover any of the peripheral subplots, instead using a second-person narrative to burrow deep into Moat’s paranoia, sourcing all his text from real material. This narrative sacrifice in favour of a singular voice gives the book thrust and authenticity of voice, and manages to show the nuances of a man who was articulate and often capable, and had reached out to social services on many occasions for help. None of which excuses Moat’s action – but it does explain his choices. Where the tabloids favoured the simplicity of the textbook “cold-blooded killer”, Hankinson’s portrait lets the reader make his or her own judgement. Clearly Moat was a bully, and yet he was not born that way. Few are. “There’ll be books written about all this, and you’ll be made out to be some crazed fucking maniac,” he says to himself, with both foresight and grim resignation.

Elsewhere the semi-fictional Moat brushes over past transgressions and labours over the tiniest slights in such repetitive, droning detail that the reader’s sympathy soon wanes. The book’s strength lies in the real-life Moat’s keenness to confess – to be heard, finally, beyond death – through these nocturnal monologues, recorded in his tent after yet another meal of charred burgers. From these remnants, Hankinson deftly assembles the man’s inner workings, lending credibility to his portrait while, beyond the myopic commentary, we know, although we don’t see it, that the outside world is closing in. Critics might ask: why give voice to a loser? Perhaps because in the right hands any real-life story is worth telling, and history should never just record the heroes and victors. The losers play their part, too.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” recently won the Portico Prize for Literature

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson is published by Scribe (211pp, £12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war