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 lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle