Interview // John Stezaker for NewStatesman magazine

John Stezaker - Betrayal

Five new artists enter the Deutsche Börse prize’s spotlight as a diverse 2013 shortlist is announced by the Photographers Gallery, London. The international photography award, now in its 17th year is the one of the most recognized within the art world. It awards £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 prize has become an arbiter of photographic relevance and as controversial as an art prize can be.

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 favored by this year’s finalists. In an almost prescriptive manner, the work selection stirred controversy about the direction of the prize. Prohibitive concerns about the conceptual nature of the prize, authorship, originality, tradition and the status of photography as art continue to surround the prize. The more experimental the shortlist it seems, the louder the lobby. The chosen portfolios will be exhibited in advance of the final announcement at the Photographers Gallery from 19th April – 30 June 2013

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 honor, 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 against feminine. These subvertions turn the facial features into comical, sometimes sad, sometimes monstrous characters. The work is about the shifting of age, about imperfections 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 lauded 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. Foreheads and central facial features are replaced so that the postcard assumes the identity. They become surreal metaphors for the anteriority of the face and perhaps the mind.

Stezaker was born in 1949 in Worcester but he 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”. Studying at the Slade in the 60s; 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 literature of Walter Benjamin as his influences. It was here that he first met fellow RCA colleague and New Statesman contributor, political collagist Peter Kennard. But this 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 Borse prize was controversial on account of him being a “non-photographer”.  “I feel kind of guilty to be honest” he confesses, “because I am not a photographer” This humbling, this benign guilt is typical but illusionary. This genius lies in simplicity & longevity. Over the years he has quietly refined his method, editing and developing his practice. It’s been said that he is  having ‘a moment’. A perennial moment. “I hope it is only a moment so peace will return once again” His solo show of new work opens at Tel Aviv Museum of Art gallery imminently.

I was first introduced to Stezaker’s work in 2007 whilst 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 was a seminal solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in early 2011, curated by Daniel F. Herrmann, for which he won this prize.

A new exhibition of John Stezaker’s work opens at The Approach, London E2 on 15th February and runs until 17th March.


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