In the Service of the Imagination
The Work of John Stezaker
by David Green
It is nearly a century ago that Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque produced the first of their papier collés - works that combined the traditional notation of painting and drawing with fragments of newspaper and other printed matter directly pasted onto a two dimensional surface - and thereby initiated, not only a decisive development in the course of Cubism, but a radically new order of depiction into the visual arts. What was to evolve from this point as the medium of collage (and its variations as photomontage, assemblage and so forth) has been characterised in terms of art's rendezvous with the full consequences of the cultural conditions of modernity. In its direct deployment of, rather than mere reference to, the phenomena of modern life and artefacts of an industrial society, collage signalled the birth of an entirely new kind of relationship between high art and the realm of popular culture. Henceforth the practices of contemporary art would find it difficult to feign indifference to the ubiquitous presence of the products of mass culture or to presuppose the separation of art from the everyday.
Yet more than this, collage marked a paradigmatic shift in the very nature of visual representation itself. With collage, the received forms of the post-Renaissance notion of the 'picture' as that of a scene of a perceived world as if viewed through a window and framed as a singular spatial and temporal unity, was shattered. Collage's assault on naturalistic representation was direct: dispensing not only with the illusion of forms lying beyond or beneath the picture plane in favour of the evident facticity of a physical surface of actual stuff but also destroying the synthetic unity of the picture and replacing it with a conglomeration of more or less discrete bits, part objects, details and fragments.
To many the aesthetics of collage seemed to mirror the experience of modernity itself. The radical dislocations of time and space which it brought to the image seemed characteristic of the phenomenology of the new mechanised, urban culture and an experience of the world as an endless succession of psychical and physical 'shocks'. Yet if collage encapsulates a particular historical convergence of aesthetic and social forces, the inevitable question is what place does it hold in the very different circumstances of the early twenty-first century?
Recently, Brandon Taylor referred to John Stezaker as 'the most prolific European collagist of the last three decades' and perhaps the most striking feature of Stezaker's practice since the mid 1970s has been his single-minded commitment to the exploration of the continuing artistic possibilities of the medium of collage or, more precisely, photomontage. The visibility of Stezaker's work has waxed and waned during this period but none of this seems to have deflected him from a number of key concerns. The first thing that needs be noted is that rarely, and then only a considerable time ago, has Stezaker used photographs taken by himself. Rather he has drawn from a vast archive of photographic images that he has assembled over the years and that he continues to add to. There are clear analogies between the act of collecting and the artistic practice of collage-making. Both involve the accumulation of unique and distinctive elements and both engage with the material sovereignty of the individual item, yet ultimately both are concerned with the re-assignation of value or meaning to these separate elements as parts of a greater whole. The maxim that meaning lies within the context in which something exists is especially clear in the case of the collection and the collage. The fact that re-contextualisation is the operative principle of collage also explains the attraction towards ephemeral artefacts. Corresponding to the manner in which earlier forms of collage often fed off the residues of commodity culture, making use of things rendered valueless, so too Stezaker has turned to a range of outmoded photographic images, finding in them an expressive resource that can only be revealed in their lack of contemporary currency. Revelling in the 'after-life' of found photographs, historically distanced from the time of their original usage and freed from intended function, Stezaker sets about putting the image to work to different ends. Having rescued the image from oblivion, the collagist's task is primarily a redemptive one.
A particularly rich source of images for Stezaker's work from the very beginning has been that of the 'film still'; a largely neglected and now virtually defunct genre of commercial photography that the artist himself has written eloquently about. As Stezaker points out, the film still was more often than not a photograph of a scene specifically restaged for the purposes of producing publicity shots rather than an actual single frame extracted from the film itself. Yet whether contrived in this fashion or not, the film still appears to us as a frozen moment removed from a temporal continuum, motionless in itself although indicating an event unfolding in time. The fascination is that while we know that it represents an incident in an on-going sequence, whatever came before it and whatever will follow it, will for most of us be forever unknown. (It is significant that almost all of the film stills Stezaker has used are from long forgotten B movies.) In this uncertainty the arrested image assumes a new kind of productivity through the heightened awareness of details which would have probably gone unnoticed in the animation of film. The minutiae of facial expressions, bodily gestures, and the scenic paraphernalia of the film's setting, attain an unplanned-for visibility. Moreover, while the film still may be disinvested of the actual narrative to which it belongs, the compulsion for the viewer is nonetheless to attempt to fill this absence and supplement the individual scene with what it lacks; in other words, to fantasize his or her own possible filmic narrative. It is interesting in this respect that when Lacan came to define the nature of fantasy in psychoanalytical terms he did so by analogy to a theatrical scenario that stages desire, comparing it to the frozen image on a cinema screen, characterised in terms of a fixed and immobile quality. And there surely is a connection here to Barthes' stated preference for the film still over the film itself. In comparison to the enforced temporal logic of the latter (the spectator of the film is always subject to the logic of its unfolding narrative) the immobility of the film still gives the viewer time to dwell upon the endless permutations; meanings that are of his own making. If there is a weakness in such an account, it is the danger of reducing a reading of the film still to a highly subjective - indeed purely idiosyncratic affair and perhaps it is for this reason that Stezaker has been drawn to use images drawn from the visual rhetoric of the cinema that we would recognize as clichéd. Such stereotyped imagery provides a ready means of access, a framework of interpretation born out of familiarity, whereby individual imagination and social knowledge find common ground.
The photographic film still can be taken as an embryonic form of collage. Severed from its immediate context and existing as an isolated fragment, it is already an 'empty' sign awaiting re-inscription. It is perhaps for this reason that Stezaker's intervention within, or manipulation of, the image can be so minimal. At its most basic it can consist of the simple act of cropping an image: producing a fragment of a fragment. Indeed, extending across his work as a whole, beyond the use of the film still, the techniques of photomontage are used with extreme restraint. Acts of incision, excision, elision, displacement and substitution are all in evidence, but always used with extreme economy. Unlike many earlier examples of the photomontage technique, one never finds in Stezaker's work that frenetic accumulation of image after image after image - as if it were only through the replication of arbitrariness and excess that one could counter the surplus production of images within commodity culture. The two most common strategies Stezaker has used are firstly, that of the removal of part of the image, either to be replaced by that of another or left as a blank void, and secondly to obscure one part of an image by directly pasting another over it. Many of the collages that make use of film stills combine these images with picture postcards, often of landscape scenes. The initial impression of these combinations of two distinctive genres of photography is one of the fundamental differences of image quality, style and subject matter. With closer attention, however, the images begin to fuse as forms, lines and textures migrate from one image to another. Recalling Max Ernst's attraction to the 'hallucinatory powers' of the patterns taken from rubbings made of wood grain or Leonardo da Vinci's finding in 'certain walls stained with damp... the likeness of divine landscapes battles and strange figures in violent action, expressions of faces and clothes and an infinity of things', Stezaker's subtle juxtapositions and combinations of image rely upon what Gombrich once called 'the beholder's share', meaning the power of imaginative projection on the part of the viewer. Many years ago Stezaker stated: 'The vantage point of collage is not an encounter with the real world but spaces imagined in encounter with the image'; and perhaps a succinct way in which to describe his practice today is that he attempts to reconcile the use of images with what it is to for us to imagine.
Of course, images are not always placed in the service of the imagination. The artist himself has argued that 'in their everyday circulation' images often 'disappear into their use'. If in contemporary society we primarily encounter images functioning instrumentally, then redeeming the image for its imaginative potential means detaching it from the ceaseless flow of visual information. Collage has been one important way of achieving this. Yet, collage now stands at a crossroads. Historically, it has been principally associated with the use of bits of printed paper, cut and pasted together, and it could be argued that the actual physical and tactile nature of these kinds of processes and materials is a constituent of collage's capacity for meaning. (Part of the attraction of Stezaker's work is the subtle but important differences in the print qualities of the photographs he uses.) Today, the use of computer-based technologies involves a set of completely different sensibilities. While methods of 'cut and paste' are integral to almost all kinds of computer software programmes, the end result - so far as the digitally processed and manipulated image is concerned - is often far removed from the discontinuities of collage. Ironically, what Photoshop and the like offer the user is the sophisticated means of emulating precisely the form of the Renaissance picture that collage once displaced. Precisely what the emergence of a post-digital pictorialism might signify in the context of late modernity remains to be seen.