Through The Looking-Glass With Scalpel And Ruler

If you take two old photographs, cut them up carefully and splice them together what do you get – still two old photographs or now one brand new image?  This is the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t world that you enter when you visit the Whitworth Gallery’s current exhibition of John Stezaker’s work.   The curatorial commentary is pretty sure what we are looking at: these, it says, are images waiting to be discovered again and new art is made from them.   Either way, it is of interest to any photographer because it invites speculation on the photographic medium itself. 

The exhibition is clustered into five main groups.  Most are based on old film publicity stills but one set  – and perhaps the most approachable to start with –  takes plates from old art or anatomy text books and slices through them, then juxtaposing the demi-images left so that it often seems to be something like the same body.  Like this.

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(John Stezaker.  Fall VIII, 2010 © John Stezaker, courtesy The Approach, London. Photo: FXP Photography)

It is startling.  First you see one body and then you see two.  It is a through-the-looking- glass-world and it takes a certain visual effort to step into and out of it.  I spent some time in front of these particular images letting them promote a speculative frame of mind then moved on, diving deeper into the rabbit-hole.

The four other clusters are based on old movie publicity shots which of themselves are both strange and familiar.  The familiarity comes from the continuing use of the still in cinema advertising but the strangeness comes from their old-fashioned, black and white stiltedness.  Some of the publicity shots are head and shoulder studio images of the stars of the day.  My understanding is that the others are stills recreating scenes from the film and not out-takes from the film itself.  So already they are ripe for interpretation since they are recreations of already fictional narratives. 

The first cluster lays an old postcard of moving nature (mostly waterfalls) over a body or face reconfiguring that character perhaps as a tumult of natural energy, as in the image below.

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(John Stezaker, Siren Song V, 2011 ©John Stezaker, courtesy The Approach, London.  Photo FXP Photography)

Another set takes five separate head-and-shoulder matinee idol shots and each splices other such images on top: profile to full frontal, side eye to frontal eye, side mouth to frontal mouth.   Like this.

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(John Stezaker, Marriage (Film Portrait Collage) XXXII, 2007 ©John Stezaker, courtesy The Approach, London.  Photo: FXP Photography)

They are remarkably eye-catching.  You scan the image and its conventional parts make up a highly unconventional whole.  When you look at the detail it is standard but when you pan back there is a jolt.  That jolt is important because it is strong enough to make you look again and again and to try to figure out what we are looking at.

Further on, a triptych features a simple rectangular white cut-out on three publicity shots of a film starring Ida Lupino.  An old chap standing next to me peered hard at one of these and then turned to me.  I thought he was going to make an erudite remark but what he actually said was:  “I always fancied Ida Lupino when I was a lad.”  When I thought about it later his remark added a dimension: these photographs were living history to him whatever the metaphorical intent of the collage itself.  A little later I found myself too in self-congratulatory mode when I spotted a young Kenneth More in another of the shots – he himself a star from my youth.

We might look at these images in many ways, they are so suggestive.  We could see them as a subversion of the photographic medium itself, or indeed of the cinematic medium.  We could see them as a deconstruction of the photograph with suggestions of malleability, recycling and infinite meaning over time.  We might contemplate the sheer arbitrariness of form in the face of their spliced couplings (and triplings, too, since some use three images).  They also present themselves as light-hearted – or learned – wordless commentaries on the still and moving image and the relationship between the two.  I find my own thoughts tending to centre in this digital age on their highly analogue nature.  Digital splicing celebrates its invisibility while the splicing in these collages celebrates its visibility.  This tells us something about both media and their utter and irreconcilable difference.

I don’t think that you necessarily have to see these as brand new images.  In the end their exact form, since it is contingent on the component stills, is not central.  It is more the process and the thought behind it which spark off interesting ideas and contemplation.  For the practising photographer they might stand as a very useful way of thinking about the medium and its forms.  Even in the absence of that it would take a dull eye indeed not to linger over such unusual work.

(The John Stezaker Exhibition is on at The Whitworth Gallery, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M15 6ER  until June 2018.)