A shorter version of this piece on John Stezaker, who won the Deutsche Börse Photography prize 2012, appeared on the LRB blog.
At the Kentish Town studio of John Stezaker, who has won the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, there’s an entire wall given over to a photographic archive the artist bought about thirty years ago. Britain’s cinemas had been going out of business for decades, and with them the picture agencies that supplied the industry with film stills and actor portraits. Stezaker snapped up the contents of one such doomed establishment, but so precious is this cache, so redolent of an image repertoire gone by, that he has done nothing with it since. (Though he has plans, he says.) Look around the studio, and you get a queasy sense of the fate that might await those black-and-white prints. Here are forgotten starlets half decapitated, neatly enucleated character actors, scenes from long-lost B-movies invaded by lurid portions of landscape or Kodachrome bouquets. And here and there a scalpel, threatening the surface of an intact print.
Stezaker is not strictly speaking a photographer. (More below on the mild and predictable controversy occasioned by his winning this prize.) Since the mid 1970s – he is now 63 – he’s been engaged on a remarkably consistent body of work that has its roots in the Conceptual art of that decade and the longer history of photomontage: an art almost as old as the medium it cannibalizes. Where the best known monteurs – John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, Linder Sterling – tend to be hyperactive at the levels of visual texture and more or less startling juxtaposition, Stezaker’s is a laconic practice, often requiring no more (it’s really quite a lot) than the scrupulous positioning of one picture on top of another.
The results may be enigmatic or absurd, coolly confecting a new glamour from faded pop-cultural memories, or risking a horror that recalls his exposure as a student to grisly medical photography and the montages of Max Ernst. At one comical, uncanny extreme are the works in which he’s placed a colour postcard above a studio portrait or film still, matching certain portions of the main image (the curve of a brow, the jut of a jaw) to tree-lines and the profiles of rock outcrops. In Siren Song V (2011), the monochrome actress’s face is obscured by a hand-tinted wave on a colour postcard, but it crashes just where we guess her hair might be. The effect is witty, but already monstrous, and the more so in the similar Masks series. Studio portraits of the 1930s and 1940s are overlain by Romantic postcard views, so that mellow flesh once subject to the retoucher’s art is gouged by cavernous voids or shredded into foliage.
Stezaker’s art is discrete and modestly scaled – he usually shows montaged originals, occasionally rephotographed enlargements – but surprisingly violent. (It is hard not to think of photographs of real facial disfigurement taken by the surgeon Sir Harold Gillies during and after the First World War.) Several series involve pairs of vertically bisected portraits. Moody or grinning half-actors are spliced together to produce oddly plausible, as a result more unsettling, physiognomies. Hairlines, lips and bodily attitudes may align perfectly, as in Muse (Film Portrait Collage) XVIII (2012) or Marriage (Film Portrait Collage) LXIV (2010), but it’s frequently the gazes that diverge, so that many of these new faces suffer a dreamy strabismus. Stezaker seems to have a thing about eyes, perverting his found subjects’ gazes or excising their orbs entirely. This tendency is perhaps another residue of Surrealism: think of the eye-gouging passage in Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye or the optical razor-cut in Buñuel and Dalí’s Un chien andalou. Whatever its source, the assault on the eye is a recurring allegory for Stezaker’s own art of judicious slicing.
Given his archival interests and his cruel way with imagery culled from the last century’s romance with the cinematic face, it would be easy to place Stezaker squarely in a still-living lineage of ‘appropriative’ art. And to judge his pictures primarily in terms of the para-photography that has flourished in recent decades – to see him as a bravura instance of the ‘artist who works with photography’ or simply a thesis-ready critic of ‘the gaze’. Those are not uncontested categories – some critics, notably Sean O’Hagan at the Guardian, opine annually that such work is not quite proper photography and has no place on the shortlist for a prize such as the Deutsche Börse. (Though even O’Hagan has this year conceded that the best artist won.) More to the point, they are pretty dull rubrics in which to corral an art that for all its critical acuity about how we read photographs, is also about an almost visionary meditation (ours and the artist’s) on the image: rapt, seduced and ready to do it some wry violence.