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 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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