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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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

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 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism