Since the 1960s, artists taking photography as their medium have often found it limited by a lack of material specificity, and have attempted to redress this imbalance by stressing the medium’s substantiality over its ability to generate illusion. British artist John Stezaker, now in his 60s, makes most such attempts appear laboriously didactic by grounding his work in previously printed objects. His combinations of found vintage prints, whether soiled, sepiaed, creased at the corners, stamped by production company logos or inscribed with fountain-pen calligraphy, automatically acquire material specificity by betraying their age.
Most of his 39 new photo-collages consist of two prints from the 1930s, ’40s or ’50s—film stills, actor portraits, nature illustrations or landscape postcards—deftly spliced together. The archly theatrical worlds of early film melodramas are rendered more fantastic by clashes of content. Two contradictory impulses—structuralism and surrealism—are fused, effectively reuniting materiality and illusion.
In each work from the “Natural History” series (2012-13), Stezaker has set a nature image into a film still of an interior scene, the jarring discord of the prints exacerbated by the difference in subject matter. The inset image partially conceals the one it overlays as it replaces the “punctum” of its action—the area to which our eyes would naturally be drawn—creating an alternative perspective that flattens and extends the underlying space. For the “Tabula Rasa” series (2012), a rectangular area of a single still has been removed, substituting otherness with absence, and reminding us that superimposition and subtraction are both forms of concealment. The “Crossing Over” series (2013) consists of fragments (only an inch or two across) of single images of an outdoor scene, minute peepholes onto remote worlds we can only begin to intuit from the given vignette. The fragments are hyperfocused details—of parasols raised over what we assume to be a promenade, or of a crowd clustering around an event we don’t see—divorced from their context. Stezaker’s attention to minutiae extends from image to presentation: the fragment’s diminutive scale and isolated vantage are emphasized by its substantially larger passe-partout frame.
Many of the film stills derive from an archive that Stezaker recently acquired from a defunct German film magazine. World War II-era stills, with swastikas stamped in their corners, are juxtaposed with British landscape postcards from the same period, reminding us that, despite the overt artifice of the photographs, they are not merely aggregates of abstract information—in the digital manner—but historically charged and geographically sourced artifacts. An “escape” into nostalgia is routed back to the here and now of a dog-eared print.
It might seem that analog film—the imagery always at a physical remove from the reel of frames from which it is projected—would preclude the tension between photography as image and photography as object that Stezaker is cultivating; and, in his new films, the individual image submits to an exponential proliferation that dematerializes it. Hundreds of early 20th-century photographs of single subjects—a horse, a crowd, a cathedral—have been sequenced at the standard film speed of 24 frames per second, like a superhuman flip book. In structural terms, these are films, although the relation between frames is conceptual rather than linear. Stezaker impels us to question what we mean by “film”-whether the term is defined by content or structure. His structuralist emphasis on the basic properties of the medium—in his use of standard film speed as a collaging parameter—contrasts with the flickering expressionism of the results. He liberates himself from his usual painstaking attention to the individual print into a realm of pure, exhilarating effect.