John Stezaker

John Stezaker is an artist working primarily with collage, often using found imagery such as postcards, film stills, advertising and illustrations from vintage books. In an interview with David Campany, Stezaker describes being motivated to create work through a fascination with images before giving insight into his method of working:

“Yielding to fascination means overcoming the habit of using found images, of consciously manipulating and controlling them. I resist subordinating the image to any concept or legible use. My aim is to free it, to let it reveal itself from behind the cloak of familiarity. I have found following my own image fascination difficult. It is always in conflict with my conscious intentions and leads me into unexpected, sometimes unwelcome territory. But fascination has become the only rule in my work – to follow it wherever it might take me. That is why digression is so important as a way of escaping conscious control. Collage is a way to create the circumstances for digression and for attention to the unintentional or inadvertent, as you say, for allowing a conscious contemplation of the image in its dream state.” (Campany, 2018)

In an interview from 2006 on the Tate website, Stezaker describes himself as always having piles of work to do, of work being habitual. His series’ occur through digression as he makes the work and often the genesis of these is quite opaque. The influence of surrealism can be noted in his description of a creative strategy that involves working at night to the point he is so tired he loses control. In the morning he is able to instinctively tell if a piece has been successful. He believes collage allows a very direct opening of the unconscious into the everyday occurrences of real life.

In another interview from an exhibition in Berlin in 2014, Stezaker laments the lack of materiality in modern digital culture which he believes creates a collective amnesia. He describes being motivated to work with found imagery in the 1970s as he could not imagine putting any more pictures into a world already super saturated with images – the ubiquity and unconscious bombardment of visual culture has only increased since then. This process is a way of reflecting from the vantage point of the consumer, rather than producer of images – another key influence for Stezaker are the Situationists and Guy Debord’s theory of the spectacle.

David Campany, in an essay accompanying Stezaker’s short listing for the Deutsche Börse prize in 2012 which he eventually won, draws attention to the repeated motifs in the work – voids, repetitions, doublings, mirrorings, all of which “scramble common logic but suggest a deeper order.” The use of vintage source material give each of Stezaker’s series’ an otherworldly distance while also unifying them as a whole. On collage, Campany says this:

“Collage can be a means of holding on, of finding calm in the eye of the storm. Collage is a place to think and act. Pivotal here is the idea that collage involves a love of images and a desire to destroy them…For Stezaker at least, collage is iconoclasm (the destruction of images) for the service of iconophilia (the love of images).” (Campany, 2012)

Below, I have made some comments on some of Stezaker’s series’ that I have been inspired by through my research. This is just a small part of his output however, and for many of his series’ there is a great deal of overlap and continuation of themes. Some of these he has been working on for years and I admire the way, as an artist, he has managed to produce work that is so thematically coherent and yet different and evolving. Much of the pieces are timeless in the sense that they are both difficult to date in terms of where they come in Stezaker’s practice and as pieces of art in themselves. Stezaker is an artist I have been aware of for a number of years, and while I previously admired his compositions as witty and well constructed, it is only after studying his output closer that I appreciate the depth and nuance of his practice. I could discuss so much more about his work but have decided to leave things with the series’ discussed below. Here are some different works that I also found inspirational during my research:

The End/The End (the film) (1975):

‘The End’ and ‘The End (the film)’, are works which use found images of Big Ben as their source material. As a teenager, Stezaker was attracted to Big Ben as a tourist icon, the title of the work refers to the discovery that Big Ben was key to British cinema with many early films ending with this as their final shot, usually with the chimes of midnight and the words ‘the end’ superimposed.

‘The End’ is a collage made of nine overlapping postcards of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. The act of overlapping functions as a crop, obscuring the lower parts of each image. The postcards are placed in order of a deepening shades of sky – they begin with the darkest and end with the pale blue at the top. Stezaker describes the sequencing as being a response to conventions in conceptual art, which at the time, was obsessed with sequences and chronology. (Manchester, 2007a)

‘The End (the film)’ is a collage of three identically cropped images of Big Ben, presented in fixed black apertures which mimic individual frames of celluloid. The sunset in the scene is unreal and garish, perhaps even apocalyptic – something Stezaker attributes to atmospheric pollution and degradation of the printing plates of the images. The source material was a giant postcard of the scene bought from a souvenir shop which Stezaker has taken a fragment – an allusion to the cinematic zoom. (Manchester, 2007b)

Michael Bracewell sees the work as an instance of transcendence, “a sublime with the mass media”. The viewer, being disconnected from the continuous flow of images and experiences, achieves a heightened perception of image and meaning. Taking the iconic image ‘out of circulation’ frees it to create a new narrative logic or illogic:

“The End, therefore, seems both a self-portrait of mass media-era imagery and a declaration of super-Romanticism, dense with aesthetic charisma and dexterously abbreviated iconography.” (Ades, 2010)

The End (1975)
The End (the film) (1975)

3rd Person Archive Series (1976-present):

For Campany (2012), the 3rd person archive is one of the purest examples of Stezaker’s work. Figures, taken initially from John Hammerton’s illustrated encyclopaedia ‘Countries of the World’ (1920) and extending to picture postcards, are isolated and printed at their actual size, one to a page. These fragments are sometimes smaller than a postage stamp and shaped as squares, rectangles or triangles, for Campany, “They are about as minor, as ephemeral as an image could be, right on the cusp of being and nothingness.” While the series stretches almost to breaking point what the photograph can be, there is also a psychological intensity concerning the relations between self and other – the tiny figures are recognisable as people – as us – they share our spaces, and yet, we will never encounter them – they only exist in our shared visual culture.

Masks Series:

In this series, film studio publicity portraits are superimposed by images showing entrances to caves and tunnels or romantic landscapes. The perception of the viewer is disrupted with the images at once being joined in such a way as to match exactly while simultaneously being obvious in their construction. For Michael Bracewell, these combinations give a strange sense of mystery, ambiguity and tension, the two appear “semiotically fused”.

Marriage Series:

For this series, two faces – one male, the other female, are brought together to create a single portrait that both subverts and exaggerates perceived notions of gender, glamour and personality. The faces are cut in a single stroke, either vertically or diagonally, an odd, unnerving process with Stezaker likening cutting through a photograph to cutting through flesh. (O’Hagan, 2014)

Dillon (2012) observes that that the faces are at once monstrous, comical and weirdly attractive. Despite their strangeness, the faces are precisely aligned, for example by the arc of an eyebrow or the thrust of a jaw, which makes the new whole credible yet both glamorous and grotesque: “One’s eyes moves tirelessly, entranced, between the two faces and their Frankenstein offspring.”

Film Works (Horse, Blind, Crowd, Cathedral):

In this series of video pieces, still images based around a single subject or theme, are edited together in quick succession with a result Laura Cumming (2015) describes as a cinematic flip book. The spectacle is bewildering with the brain attempting to keep up and make sense of the onslaught of imagery. And yet, the more you look the more able you are to learn to read the images:

“They are meant to spark thoughts and so they do, these objects of contemplation that hover in the air like humming birds moving at superhuman speed.”

‘Horse’ layers hundreds of pictures taken from thirty years of racehorse catalogues. These images of the ideal racehorse appear to become one and move while also evolving over time. ‘Cathedral’ is composed of postcards looking down the aisle of numerous cathedrals towards the altar and stained glass windows behind. The contrast between the darkness of the interior, and the light shining through the windows make this a focal point to which the viewer is drawn. ‘Crowd’ and ‘Blind’ takes cinema stills as its source material and effectively recreates the feeling you have in a mass of people. An excerpt from ‘Blind’ can be viewed here.

This onslaught of imagery is an exciting difference from the rest of Stezaker’s practice, and yet, it retains the same DNA as the thematic strategies are so precise. I would love to be able to experience these works in full as they really appeal to me. I attempted something similar with my response to the preliminary exercise, ‘image flood’, although the crude nature of my work is evident. (See video here.)

Links:

Saatchi Gallery

The Approach

Tate

Tate Triennial 2006: John Stezaker (artists interview)

Artnet

Richard Gray Gallery

John Stezaker: Deutsche Börse photography prize winner 2012 – in pictures. The Guardian, 3rd September 2012

John Stezaker exhibition – in pictures. The Observer, 20th January 2011.

Excerpt from ‘Blind’

Bibliography:

Ades, D. (2010) John Stezaker. London: Ridinghouse and Whitechapel Gallery

Bate, D. (2015) Art Photography. London: Tate Publishing.

Campany, D. (2012) Too much, too little. David Campany Website. Available at: https://davidcampany.com/john-stezaker-deutsche/ [accessed 22nd July 2019]

Campany, D. (2013) Art and Photography. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

Campany, D. (2018) After Images: David Campany talks to John Stezaker. David Campany Website. Available at: https://davidcampany.com/john-stezaker-david-campany-conversation/ [accessed 1st August 2019]

Cristello, S. (2015) John Stezaker: The truth of masks. In conversation with Stephanie Cristello. The Seen. Available at: http://theseenjournal.org/art-seen-international/john-stezaker-truth-masks/ [accessed 1st August 2019]

Cumming, L. (2011) John Stezaker; Moving Portraits. The Observer, 30th January 2011. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jan/30/john-stezaker-whitechapel-moving-portraits-review [accessed 1st August 2019]

Cumming, L. (2015) John Stezaker: Film Works review – an overwhelming onrush of images. The Observer, 26th April 2015. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/apr/26/john-stezaker-film-works-review-de-la-warr-pavilion [accessed 1st August 2019]

Dillon, B. (2011) John Stezaker: What a carve up. The Guardian, 29th January 2011. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jan/29/john-stezaker-whitechapel-gallery [accessed 1st August 2019]

Manchester, E. (2007a) John Stezaker: The End (1975). Tate website. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/stezaker-the-end-t12340 [accessed 4th August 2019]

Manchester, E. (2007b) John Stezaker: The End (the film) (1975). Tate Website: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/stezaker-the-end-the-film-t12348 [accessed 4th August 2019]

O’Hagan (2014) John Stezaker: ‘cutting a photograph can feel like cutting through flesh’. The Guardian, 27th March 2014. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/australia-culture-blog/2014/mar/27/john-stezaker-sydney-biennale [accessed 1st August 2019]