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Book Review: Unassisted Readymade


Book Review Unassisted Readymade By John Stezaker Reviewed by Adam Bell Sometimes all it takes is one cut. Here or there. Other times, the most radical gesture is simply moving something from one place to another, a shift in context. For over forty-years, Stezaker has mined cinema’s golden era for strange and forgotten images, cutting and reworking them to unlock their powers.
Unassisted ReadymadeBy John Stezaker.
 JRP | Ringier, 2016.
 
Unassisted Readymade
Reviewed by Adam Bell

Unassisted Readymade
Photographs by John Stezaker. Text by David Campany. Edited by Jürg Trösch, Lionel Bovier, and Markus Bosshard.
JRP | Ringier, Zürich, Switzerland, 2016. 132 pp., 79 color illustrations, 9½x13½".


Sometimes all it takes is one cut. Here or there. Other times, the most radical gesture is simply moving something from one place to another, a shift in context. For over forty-years, Stezaker has mined cinema’s golden era for strange and forgotten images, cutting and reworking them to unlock their powers. Departing from the more aggressively cut or collaged images of his best-known work, the appropriated images found in John Stezaker’s Unassisted Readymade are no less disorienting or uncanny in their straight-forward presentation. Brought forth from the shadows, the displaced, cut, stained, and rotated images in Unassisted Readymade have been given new life. With each cut and intervention, Stezaker has opened up a space and allowed us to step in, making something new or revealing what’s always been there.

Unassisted ReadymadeBy John Stezaker. JRP | Ringier, 2016.

Hardly a new technique, appropriation has a long history from Surrealism to contemporary ‘post-internet’ practices, but Stezaker has a keen eye and adeptly selects odd and unsettling images. Unlike his obviously collaged and joined images, Stezaker’s interventions in Unassisted Readymade images are minimal. A few images are rotated upside down, some are cut, but most are presented on their own, or sport a single blemish. Despite their varying degrees of manipulation, each of these gestures forces us to reexamine the photograph — breaking whatever seamless illusion it may cast. As David Campany notes in the book’s introduction, the oxymoronic title makes a direct reference to Marcel Duchamp’s radical invention of the readymade. If we accept that a photograph can be a readymade, we must also ask how and if any readymade can be ‘unassisted.’ Arguably, all readymades are assisted in some way, even if it is merely a matter of placement, orientation, or context. The same can be said of a photograph. In fact, all photographs contain the seeds of a readymade. Assisted or unassisted, all you need is time and a new context.

Unassisted ReadymadeBy John Stezaker. JRP | Ringier, 2016.
Unassisted ReadymadeBy John Stezaker. JRP | Ringier, 2016.

As Stezaker has recently noted, he’s drawn to what collectors often refer to as ‘virgins,’ or anonymous actors who appear in stills, but who’ve never made a significant film. The meticulously lit and composed publicity stills from the 20s, 30s and 40s Stezaker favors come imbued with a theatrical aura. The hopeful faces of the forgotten stars audition for our adulation or remain frozen in stilted, dramatic moments. Although usually presented unaltered, many of the photographs in the book have undergone a single, decisive gesture — a cut through the face, the waist, or neck. In each case, Stazaker’s cut directs our attention to the gestures and positions of the figure. Decapitated men stand in suits, arms crossed, in authoritative poses, and partially headless women lean forward, heads tilted towards the camera. In the cut film stills, the drama is forever curtailed, like a stalled theatrical curtain or half-opened shutter. As curious viewers, we’re drawn closer.

Unassisted ReadymadeBy John Stezaker. JRP | Ringier, 2016.
Unassisted ReadymadeBy John Stezaker. JRP | Ringier, 2016.

In both his subtle and aggressive interventions, Stezaker adopts the language of cinematic editing to deconstruct and disrupt the very illusion cast by these images. The physical cuts, like their cinematic equivalents, serve as visual punctuation, directing our attention and focus, and underscoring the image’s uncanny presence. Likewise, a rotation or blemish cracks the illusionistic veneer, like a solitary hair caught in the camera’s gate. Even the unaltered images might be seen as a cinematic long take, allowing our gaze to rest and take in a single face or scene. In one instance, a costumed fire marshal stares back at the camera with one eye closed. Less of a playful wink than a creepy tick, the man’s affectless stare is unnerving and needs no embellishment. As images, each photograph is reproduced as an object, separating the image from the page and signaling them as ‘archival’ artifacts pulled from a distant studio vault. Never content to highlight the image alone, Stezaker constantly reminds us not only of the image’s material origins (via the cuts, creases, stains, borders, and edges), but also its migration from the desk of a publicist to his studio or to a gallery wall, or this book.

For a collagist, the most radical act may be to keep the image intact — to hold the knife. Given enough time, the right context, and the right image, unaltered images can have all the power of those that have been cut, folded or collaged. Stezaker has demonstrated time and again he knows when and when not to cut.—Adam Bell

ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer. His work has been widely exhibited, and his writing and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including AfterimageThe Art Book ReviewThe Brooklyn RailfototazoFoam MagazineLay Flatphoto-eye and Paper-Journal. His books include The Education of a Photographer and Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts. He is currently on staff and faculty at the MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department at the School of Visual Art. (www.adambbell.com and blog.adambbell.com)


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