Love XI, 2006. Image courtesy Collection Maja Hoffman, copyright John Stezaker
John Stezaker says he sometimes feels guilty about 'abusing' found photographs - but he's been at it for 40 years and now has a huge retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery. What's he playing at? BJP interviewed him to find out more.
BJP: How did you get into collage?
John Stezaker: My mother has always been horrified at how my work emerged out of childhood vandalism. I was into it from the beginning, seemingly. I cut up and defaced books, and was regarded as very naughty for doing it. I do still feel that guilt, there is something very peculiar about taking a scalpel which was invented for surgical purposes and cutting across the emulsion of a photograph. I don’t know why I felt it was necessary. It shocks me sometimes how violent my early work was. But you can only get a feeling of the inviolable purity and sanctity of the emulsion of a photograph by violating it.
Then I had a teenage collage phase, but not with photographs. I made my first photomontages at the Slade in 1968, in my second year at university. I had started getting interested in photography in the first year, then I stopped painting and started collecting and using photographs. I made collages with images cut out of shopping catalogues. Unfortunately I don’t think any have survived – I tend to leave things in places and they get lost. But I think they’re very powerful, lost images, because you fantasise about them. One I remember very fondly was fragments from backgrounds of adverts in a grid; in another I used shopping catalogues, taking carpet samples and putting them into grids like Mondrians. That was very funny, I wish I still had that.
I did have a point where my work was quite political, maybe because of the Situationists, especially Debord. I used to get hold of the Situationist International and shake, it was so inspiring. My French was terrible so I couldn’t really understand the writing, but I got the idea from the images. I thought this reuse of images was really fascinating and for a while I thought ‘This is it, forget all this art stuff, it’s political’. But it didn’t last very long. I started to find it unsatisfactory because the moment you put a word on an image, you deny it as image. They look like colour supplements, the image dies. Only when I took the word away completely in 1976 was I able to start again. All the work I did before that I tried to destroy.
BJP: Peter Kennard [who’s also well known for political photomontage] was at the Slade at the same time as you, how much do you think you have in common?
John Stezaker: I love Peter and respect him but I have a real problem with political photomontage. I did a piece on it called Heartfelt [a play on John Heartfield, the German photomontage artist] and it was my critique of political photomontage. Political photomontage is doing exactly opposite of what I see collage as doing. I always used to make a distinction between montage in a sort of Eisensteinian sense [film-maker Sergei Eisenstein], and collage, which I saw as more a kind of Vertov scene [film-maker Dziga Vertov], a kind of showing of the seams as opposed to a kind of seamlessness. To me, montage approaches the world of photographic images as if they’re kind of particles of speech, and tries to combine them as words to make meaning. My position is the opposite, it’s about the total illegibility of images. That’s the threshold between these two approaches.
Klaus Staeck, the German equivalent of Peter, ended up producing government propaganda, and that’s my problem with political photomontage in the end – it’s only ever about power. For me there’s a naturally subversive power in the image, and the image in our collective cultural subconscious. There’s so much imagery around, but it’s always tied to narrative, pre-eminently in cinema where there is no way we can approach the image any longer without it being tied to the speech, the auditory. Silent movies are a real last moment for cinema as image, since then it’s been a sort of imagery that’s consigned to an unconsciousness – the shots are shown so quickly, at 24th of a second, that we can’t consciously retain them. And all the multimedia that’s around now, to me that’s montage. Everything is montage, we live within a montage, and to me that’s terrifying. A lot of people have declared this, from Lefevre to Baudrillard, this kind of dematerialisation of our experience. We’re in a sea of all that communication. I’m a Luddite really, trying to live out the rest of my life within a mechanical pathway.
BJP: Do you think collage is a way to slow those images down and make us more consciously aware of them?
John Stezaker: It’s partly to do with that, but it’s also about another kind of momentum, which is the imaginary projection, the movement of the imagination and the sort of flight that can be found in images.
BJP: How do you choose the images you work with?
John Stezaker: I have no answer, it’s almost the reverse – how do these images choose me? At the moment I’m experimenting with the idea of doing collages in books, so I’m Ebaying. That started in an Oxfam shop with a man called Carol Becker, a Czechoslovakian photographer. I have a regular round of second hand bookshops around Hampstead and I kept finding his books on Prague, all hand dedicated. I realised he must have left Czechoslovakia when the Russians moved in and come to Hampstead – a lot of Czech Jews settled in the area. It all made sense. He became the source for a huge body of work I’ve been working on for 20 years called The Bridge, combinations of topographical images of Prague.
Going into a charity shop or second hand bookshop, there are moments when I see an image and it seems like the strangest thing in the world. It’s a kind of sighting. That experience is the key thing for me, that moment when an image is showing itself not in terms of its relationship with the everyday world, its context, but showing in its mysterious other aspect. That’s what I try and follow, that quality. I don’t quite know what it’s about. It’s not choosing the image, it’s what the image is finding in me. Or rather, it’s impersonal – I enter into an impersonal realm. I often used to use the metaphor of orphans – images in charity shops are like orphans, they’ve lost their context or culture, they’ve gone a little bit out of date. They’ve been neglected and overlooked for years and people have passed them by, then suddenly here I am, the alternative foster home but unfortunately I then inflict terrible abuse down in the basement where I cut them up.
BJP: Why have you worked so much with certain types of found imagery?
John Stezaker: It is partly personal – I grew up around those images. I was drawn to sepia, which wasn’t a colour of my childhood but which is the colour of things that have been consigned to cupboards, old things. I often think the Second World War changed very thing. Pre-war everything gravy-coloured, post-war everything was primary colours because it was America. I was brought up within that new culture and have explored that with collages I’ve done with Ladybird books – there is very interesting colour coding, which is pure American. I’m very interested in that shift. But I also have this other side to me that’s interested in the time before, and my Third Person Archive centres on my grandparents’ era. I see it as a familial thing. A lot of my more recent portrait images are about the shift from old to young, and it’s obvious why – I’ve reached that age. That’s quite explicable as a preoccupation.
I collect postcards of the same place – Big Ben from 1900 to now, for example. I like particular strange corners of provincial towns, a roundabout or a canon that appears and disappears. I’m fascinated with the 1930s and 40s because it was the height of the cinema. It was the great age of cinema, but there was this total dichotomy between the war and depression and all the rest of I, and this fantasy [the world of the cinema]. It was the first time we started to live in that schism in media culture, the first time we were being pulled in two directions. Somehow I missed that with the TV. It’s the two war machines, in Paul Virilio’s terms, it’s the cinema bombarding us with a machine gun of images and it’s the actual war. It was strangely a mythic time. My parents only started to talk it about later – in the 1950s it was very much “Don’t talk about it, start afresh. But the shadow was there in that sepia-coloured world – what happened. A lot of what I do is trying to see the world as a series of ghosts. That’s the only way I can explain it, but it does seem to have an urgency in the present. I have a certain horror of nostalgia, for me it’s a very current concern. There’s a certain horror with the past.
BJP: Are you interested in the online dissemination of images?
John Stezaker: Only in a negative sense, a kind of horror. It’s very attractive to do things instantaneously, but everything gets absorbed into activity on the computer. Everything becomes communication and montage, drawn into this space of multiplicity. It’s fascinating, and it’s a prison. I see collage as a way of trying to find some seams and fissure.
BJP: How do you feel about showing your work in galleries?
John Stezaker: Very happy. I find the idea of my work returning to popular culture totally irrelevant, a total subversion of what I’m trying to do. I see signs of it here and there – I can point out advertising campaigns that have been clearly influenced by things I’ve done. I don’t like it. Its funny isn’t it, here I am appropriating madly but I don’t really like it when people appropriate my work.
Most conceptual art tries to reduce the gap between everyday life and the gallery, I want to reinforce that distinction. I think we’re losing the sanctity of these places because of communication. The National Gallery is one of my favourites, but I almost don’t like going there any more because of the buzz of communication and people marching along listening to headsets. I like museums to be, what did Gide call it, spaces of polished solitude. I remember them like that, now they’re very busy and I don’t like that too much. The space of the gallery, a space separated from life, is very important to me and I want to preserve it. But it’s not that I want to be comfortable there - I want to bring out that morbid, deathly pursuit. I think all my favourite artists have had this concept as the museum as the place of death.
BJP: What do you make of copyright and intellectual property laws?
John Stezaker: Copyright and intellectual property are not something I have an immediate interest in. People occasionally give me a tome on them. No body has ever been interested in challenging me [for his use of images], even though I usually leave the copyright sign on the things, which is a pretty direct challenge. Either people are being very understanding or the images are copyright free by now.
I’m making much more fundamental point – all property is theft. I’m stealing. I see my work as that, it’s important to be clear about it. Appropriation sounds much too official. A young student once asked me that, ‘Why do you call it appropriation?’ and I said ‘I don’t, I far prefer theft’. It gets to the point. Sometimes I do think of the circumstances of the photographer, and here I am probably making more money out of their photographs than they ever did. I have sort of strategies of reparation, such as at least people are being introduced to their photographs through my work.
BJP: What are you working on at the moment?
John Stezaker: Billboards, current bill boards. I’m having a go, I am trying. Recently I realised I was beginning to represent a position somehow, and the position was that I work with old, black-and-white film images. So I’m going to try large-scale colour, the antithesis. Whether it will come to anything is another thing. I’m using whatever billboard images I can get hold of, getting a source is very difficult because it’s illegal. There’s no way of doing it legitimately. I infiltrate. But I’m concentrating on bottles and glasses in advertising. Bottles and glasses with condensation, preferably green, and preferably with out any writing. I’ve collected all kinds of stuff that has never come together before but which is related to still lifes. It’s in the very early stages.
I’ve also got lots of ideas re moving images. It looks like I’m spinning out lots of theories but really I’m always trying to put them to bed. I’ll try to finish a project, then concentrate on something completely new. I am easily seduced visually, and I love it. There’s a point which is beyond the seductive, a feeling of real electricity that contains an edge of horror. I don’t know why that should be or why I should want that but that’s what I’m after – a seduction on the brink of collapse.
I’ve also got a lot of shows coming up involving my past work – the Whitechapel in January, that’s a big one, a show in Krakow and another in Philadelphia. I welcome retrospectives, I’m not going to say ‘No, no, I’m far too young’. I like the idea. It allows me to say ‘OK, that’s what people think of it now’. It allows me to go completely wild. I could do anything.
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