The art of non-photography

An interview with John Stezaker.

Five new artists enter the Deutsche Börse prize’s spotlight as a diverse 2013 shortlist is announced by the Photographers Gallery in London. The international photography award, now in its 17th year, is the one of the most significant in the art world. It awards a prize of £30,000 for a “significant contribution, either exhibition or publication, to the medium of photography in Europe for work shown within the previous year". Nominations were invited for living photographers of any nationality. 

The five shortlisted artists for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2013 are Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Mishka Henner, Chris Killip and Cristina De Middel.

Appropriated images, allegorical reinterpretation, conceptual Google tech image-making, collaboration and traditional documentary are the creative methods favoured by this year’s finalists. The work selected has stirred controversy about the direction of the prize. Fundamental concerns about authorship, originality, tradition and the status of photography as art continue to surround the prize. The more experimental the shortlist, the more vigorous the debate. The chosen portfolios will be exhibited at the Photographers Gallery from 19 April until 30 June. The winner will be announced in May.

I spoke recently with last year’s winner, John Stezaker. Stezaker is a cerebral, quietly spoken man. He patiently assembles his words as he considers my questions. “It’s a great honour, of course, winning this award but doubly so as a non-photographer. My practice involves a parasitic dependence on photography; it feels as though the prize is an acknowledgment by the host – perhaps even a reciprocal symbiosis. And its rather terminal too,” he chuckles. Stezaker plays games with images. His technique is to source archive prints and film stills, reassembling them through collage or montage. He steals identities. The outcome, he says is serendipitous. “The images I collect are from the 1940s and 1950s. There is a sort of blandness about them and the personalities that are read within them. When I intercut them in that way I found that somehow there was a kind of humanity to them.”

By pairing, splicing and dividing, Stezaker reanimates dormant portraits. In his best known series, Marriage, teeth, eyes, lips are the point of alignment between the male and female counterparts of film stills. He juxtaposes masculine and feminine. The work is about ageing, imperfection and identity.  By presenting the old and making it new, he re contextualises the original meaning of the image and asks us to examine our relationship to the photographic.

How much of the man is in the collage? “When I am completely in control, I am less receptive to the image and when I let go of that sense of self, it’s when the work becomes into being. So I'd almost say it’s a reverse, that there is a state of impersonality. Part of what doing collage is, it’s looking at what you consume in the everyday, the immediacy of one’s life. I think of the collage process of a conscious form of dreaming, not that I start with some kind of dream and I find it in the work, it’s always the discovery of the work that is there on the desk, and it’s usually at the moment of feeling disempowered from being in charge of it, it’s the moment when things fail and yet succeed.”

In his much-praised series Masks, Stezaker appropriates vintage postcards of caves, like the Lydstep Cavern near Tenby and later rock formations such as arches, and pastes them across tight, glamourous head and shoulder Hollywood studio portraits. 

Stezaker was born in 1949 in Worcester but moved to London as a child. “There is a theory that you are drawn to images of the world before your present in it, on the way to the sublime, in the world in absence of you, and I’m very convinced in that, the pre world that I didn’t exist in”. He studied at the Slade in the 1960s; the college then was a great incubator for progressive thought. He lists Surrealism, Dadaism, Georgio di Curico, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Joseph Cornell, Picasso and the work of the German thinker Walter Benjamin as his influences. It was here that he first met fellow RCA colleague and New Statesman contributor, political collagist Peter Kennard. But his work is not political. “I’m not trying to make a statement,” Stezaker affirms. “My work is an exile from life. The instrumentality of the image is something that I am trying to recover imagery from.”

His win in last year's Deutsche Börse prize was controversial on account of his being a “non-photographer".  “I feel kind of guilty to be honest," he confesses, "because I am not a photographer.” He's being too modest, though. Over the years he has quietly refined his method, editing and developing his practice. And he has taken his time. Its been said that he is having a "moment". A perennial moment. "I hope it is only a moment so peace will return once again!” A solo show of his new work opens soon at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in Israel.

I was first introduced to Stezaker's work in 2007, when I was working for Art World magazine, which published a portfolio of unseen work. At the time, the buzz was that Stezaker had a strategy of holding back his work, drip feeding it into public consciousness. This strategy cultivated an air of mystery but also gave Stezaker's career momentum. There followed a seminal solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in early 2011, curated by Daniel F Herrmann, and it was this show that he won the prize. 

A new exhibition of John Stezaker's work opens at The approach, London E2 on 15 February and runs until 17 March

"Siren Song V" (2012) by John Stezaker (Credit: Deutsche Börse Prize)
Rebecca McClelland is photography editor of the New Statesman
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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.