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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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear