Social Media

Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review At the Edge of Pictures Photomontage by John Stezaker Reviewed by Brian Arnold "When I was working towards my MFA, I had the unique opportunity to study with the innovative collage filmmaker, Lewis Klahr. I learned a great deal from Lewis, specifically some of the primary vocabularies and strategies of collage. He taught me to trust my impulses and intuition, and to work quickly and uncritically, to use collage loosely and spontaneously in order to open and explore my unconscious motivations..."
At the Edge of Pictures
Photomontage by John Stezaker

Kerber, 2020. 96 pp., 44 illustrations, 6½x9½".

“How can you be an artist in a culture of images?” 

— Dawn Ades, on the art of John Stezaker 

“In our culture, now, the image is always on the edge of disappearance, it is never there long enough to see. So, we never truly grasp the image; we only grasp what the image is standing for. It is connected with narrative, and I want to remove it from narrative.”

— John Stezaker 

When I was working towards my MFA, I had the unique opportunity to study with the innovative collage filmmaker, Lewis Klahr. I learned a great deal from Lewis, specifically some of the primary vocabularies and strategies of collage. He taught me to trust my impulses and intuition, and to work quickly and uncritically, to use collage loosely and spontaneously in order to open and explore my unconscious motivations. When I think of collage today, I still visualize work within this paradigm, as a formless, surrealist attempt to unlock the unconscious mind and undermine popular media. British artist John Stezaker, however, takes collage to different places. I’ve been interested in John Stezaker’s work for years, primarily because his methods deviate from my expectations of collage. Rather than relying on impulse and spontaneity, he has developed a remarkable vision that appears much more rigorous, disciplined, conceptual, and methodical — an approach to collage that feels patient and deliberate, and so much more illuminating and original as a result.

The new book published by Walter K√∂nig, John Stezaker: At the Edge of Pictures, offers a critical investigation of Stekaker’s work and career, spanning from the 1970s to the present. Compiled by art historian and curator Yuval Etgar, the book analyzes Stekaker's work in its historical context, using a prism of social and artistic developments from the 1970s and 1980s to understand Stekaker's life and work. At the Edge of Pictures includes three essays by Etgar; a transcription of a 2017 conversation between Etgar, Stezaker, and Richard Prince; and numerous reproductions of Stezaker's work as well as pictures by his influences and contemporaries. Collectively these texts analyze the photographic materials Stezaker collected for his collages and silkscreens and provides keen insight into the motivation and aspirations of his work, how these ideas evolved over time, and how Stezaker’s work relates to similar patterns in art history and among his contemporaries.

The first chapter of the book, “Photo Roman (1967-77)” is a biographical study of Stezaker, concentrating on this life as an art student in the late 1960s and his early career after school. The narrative about his education is quite interesting. Born in Worcester, Stezaker moved to London to study at the Slade School of Art, part of the University College of London, where he intended to study painting. As a young man, he was a novice to city life, and ended up renting a room in a brothel. As a student he was often more enraptured with art history and philosophy than his studio classes, even to the chagrin of his professors. In 1970, he began a relationship with pioneering artist and philosopher Victor Burgin. Labeled as a Conceptual artist, Burgin was more intent on usurping and undermining the ideas that defined Conceptual Art of his day, an ambition soon characteristic of Stezaker’s work as well. Some other early influences included Walter Benjamin, specifically his ideas about captions and photographs, and the Situationist International, a French intellectual and artistic movement led by Guy Debord and defined by the Parisian riots of 1968. The influence of the Situationist International proved key, specifically their approach of d√©tournement, a technique that reappropriated and undermined photographs and visual information (a notion at the heart of Debord’s most famous work, The Society of the Spectacle) in ways both deviant and enlightening. This first chapter ends with Stezaker hitting a new stride, at the point in which the work that came to define his career emerged.

The second chapter, “The Trial (1976-84),” picks up by establishing the theoretical and conceptual framework of Stezaker’s voice as a mature artist. His collages during this period are defined by their use of postcards from the early 20th century, film stills from the 1940s, and headshots of actors from the 1940s and 1950s. The photographs he worked with had tropes and features that make them accessible to a wide audience, which helped serve Stezaker’s counter-cultural ambitions. As Etgar states, “The photographic materials possess a familiar, generic appearance, and yet few observers would actually recognize the precise subjects. The resemblance to famous Hollywood actors or great monumental destinations serves as bait to lure the viewer closer to the picture.” Quite striking to me are the remarkably minimal techniques and treatments Stezaker employed in making his work from this period. He often did things as simple as laying one small postcard on top of a larger picture to mask or obscure parts (a method Stezaker called Inserts, suggesting something more complicated and subversive than simple placement), one diagonal cut to stitch together two separate faces, or even just rotating a picture — treating it like a Duchampian ready-made and using a simple reorientation to circumvent our understanding of the image and all that it represents. Despite this economy of means, or perhaps because of them, Stezaker's collages reveal remarkable psychological and cultural complexity, often mixing humor with the grotesque, resulting in images equally compelling and unsettling, and ones that require multiple viewings to fully engage.

In “The Trial (1976-84)” Etgar also discusses Stezaker’s influence by Max Black, a philosopher who engaged in a study of metaphor. Black’s investigations into metaphor were extensive, but in looking at Stezaker’s work Etgar focuses on a particular definition, in which the language or object functioning as the metaphor evolves in a continuous exchange with the original idea or object, the metaphor and the object engaged in a dialog that changes both. Pausing to think of this, even in the most basic ways, provides tremendous insight into the collages and motivations found in Stezaker’s work, allowing insight into the ideas Stezaker sought while juxtaposing photographs, creating an elusive, ongoing exchange of ideas, a slippery metaphor allowing both the pictures to become something new and unintended.

The third chapter, “At the Edge of Pictures,” makes an argument for a resolved, fully matured aesthetic framework for understanding Stezaker’s work. Etgar begins by pointing to the primary threads he sees as necessary for understanding the artist’s work. He first suggests that literary and linguistic theory — found in his studies of Walter Benjamin, Black’s explorations of metaphor, and his relationship with Victor Burgin — are essential for understanding Stezaker’s work and achievements. Etgar argues that Stezaker created a new vocabulary in collage by synthesizing these different literary and aesthetic philosophies. The second thread Etgar identifies positions Stezaker as part of the zeitgeist of his time; that the works emerging in the 1970s and 1980s by artists as diverse as Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and Sherrie Levine suggest a new cultural consciousness based on the power of the mass media, popular culture, and image reappropriation.

At the Edge of Pictures ends with a conversation between Stezaker and Richard Prince, facilitated by Etgar. This doesn’t bring too much to the text, but it is the first time we hear Stezaker’s own words as he reflects on his role in the art world in 1970s and 80s. The two artists talk briefly about their work, their professional connections, and some of their peers (Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, Jenny Holzer, and Barbara Kruger, specifically). Etgar’s text frequently refers to this moment in art history, comparing and contrasting Stezaker with his peers working with appropriated materials. The conversation with Prince helps contextualize Stezaker's work within this period, offering simple ideas as how he considers his work alongside his contemporaries.

Finishing At the Edge of Pictures changed my understanding of both the medium of collage and the enigmatic vision of John Stezaker. Yuval Etgar is successful in creating a substantial and intriguing framework for situating Stezaker’s collages and silkscreens, all developed with a close understanding of the ideas that most influenced him. Etgar’s writing is clear, engaging, and rigorous, but also for those more academically inclined. The reproductions are good, but more would be better. The book will also be valuable for those interested in the history of collage, image appropriation, and postmodern history and theory.

Purchase Book

Read More Book Reviews 

Brian Arnold
is a photographer and writer based in Ithaca, NY, where he works as an Indonesian language translator for the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University. He has published two books on photography, Alternate Processes in Photography: Technique, History, and Creative Potential (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Identity Crisis: Reflections on Public and Private and Life in Contemporary Javanese Photography (Afterhours Books/Johnson Museum of Art, 2017). Brian has two more books due for release in 2021, A History of Photography in Indonesia: Essays on Photography from the Colonial Era to the Digital Age (Afterhours Books) and From Out of Darkness (Catfish Books).