John Stezakar makes photo collages using found work, pairing portraits, overlying postcards on images, cutting and pasting. He uses manipulation by hand rather than digital work. Altering and subverting the original pictures. An image of a man turns into a woman – or is it? Eyes are replaced by landscape. Is it what they see? Can you imagine the person behind the mask? Much of his work is based on old film stills and advertising photographs. A story turned into another story. What does his work say about the truth in photography? I find the images fascinating. Some are beautiful others disturbing. Modern Surrealism.
In 2012 he received the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize for a collection of his photo collages (John Stezaker, s.d.). His work uses old images, not his own. Does this make him any less a photographer? Which opens the question of what is a photographer? Do you have to take the images yourself – or can you utilise those of others? For the ultimate answer to this one can only look at the work of Sultan and Mandel in Evidence, reprinted as a facsimile cope in 2018 (Sultan and Mandel, 2018). It has been described as ‘one of the most influential photobooks of the last 50 years. If you are using other’s images are you rather a curator? –but again is a curator someone who keeps, rather than someone who uses? This work falls between, or overlaps, both these descriptions. Does it matter? The images make you (or at least made me) think.
A recent exhibition of his work was held in London at The Approach and the catalogue (Stezaker et al., 2019)gives two fascinating essays about his work together with an overview of images produced between 1976 and 2017. The first essay by Michael Bracewell discusses the source of the images from ‘industrially created romantic fantasies’ and how by the simple act of cutting Stezaker transforms them into ‘an oddly haunted psychological moment’. His art disrupts the image and forces the viewer to look repeatedly at an ‘illogical ‘scene to try and make it make sense. In one of his later series Love the apparently simple act of cutting through the eyes and duplicating them gives an eerie, intensity to the gaze. I would be interested to see them alongside the original images. I did manage to track one down. The original is a picture of Helen Walker by Everett in which the actress looks sultry and stares directly at you. In the altered image. She is shocked, even frightened. She has certainly lost her air of composure.
The finishing essay by Craig Burnett quotes from John Donne’s poem The Ecstasy’ – Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread/our eyes upon one double string…’ and questions (via the talking persona of one of the images) ‘does it lure you in, intrigue, astonish?’. They certainly intrigue and astonish me.
John Stezaker (s.d.) At: https://www.deutscheboersephotographyfoundation.org/en/collect/artists/john-stezaker.php (Accessed 10/08/2020).
Sultan, L. and Mandel, M. (eds.) (2018) Evidence. New York: Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.