John Stezaker, Whitworth Gallery, Manchester

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to go on a study visit organised by OCA alumni (and L3 Hangout study buddies) Stan Dickinson and John Umney, to see the Stezaker retrospective. It’s taken me a while to get round to writing it up as a holiday intervened in the meantime, but in hindsight this gap has been useful, as the more I pondered the work, the more I got out of it – and the more I found potential inspiration for my own practice.

The work is organised in groups based on various Stezaker projects. Though his distinctive vintage photo collage approach is the common thread, I found some projects to be particularly interesting and others less so.

First some notes I made at the time, useful to think back on at a distance of a few weeks:

  • Materiality of the photograph – singular images, unique as art (unlike most photography)
  • Democratic – making more everyday photos something new – rebirth / new lease of life
  • Source pics all from similar era – makes past even more surreal than it already is
  • Source material mainly from showbusiness – artifice / fiction / unreality – making these images representations of representation? (meta-artifice?)

Now I’ll mention two particular sets that I found interesting and what I got out of them.

Tabula Rasa

In this set a shape (an isosceles trapezium, geometry fans) is cut out of a scene, usually a movie still. So in fact each one isn’t really a collage – it’s a single photograph with a specific aperture cut out of it. This technique makes the cut create literal – as opposed to visual or metaphorical – negative space. The space, with the white mount board underneath, creates an illusion of the shape being part of the picture, often replacing the presumed focal point of the scene (remaining subjects are normally gazing at the white shape), and specifically resembling a screen.

Tabula Rasa XV, 2009 by John Stezaker

This is where the meta-layering I noted earlier comes in – each artwork is a still from a film, where the subjects are actors pretending to be someone else, while Stezaker’s intervention introduces a screen that makes it look as though some of the subjects are watching (or about to watch) something being projected onto a screen. Actors playing characters watching an imaginary film – trippy.

This idea that an absence of something could in effect create a presence of something new is something I found really fascinating – the juxtaposition of opposites: subtraction is addition; absence is presence. This playing with opposites oddly reminded me of Orwell’s 1984 (war is peace, freedom is slavery etc).

What all of this sparked in my mind was the link to a developing photographic obsession of mine: shapes. I’m increasingly observing how much I am drawn to the ability of shapes to carry part of a photographic message – shapes within the frame, shapes of frames, repetition of shapes, metaphorical or metonymic signification of shapes. Tabula Rasa added to my thought process the idea of negative shapes.


This was my original introduction to Stezaker a couple of years ago at the OCA Photography Matters symposium, as part of Rachel Smith’s paper on the materiality of the photograph, and I remember it being a real highlight.

In these he adds a landscape scene (usually a picture postcard) onto a portrait (usually an acting publicity shot). The distinctive technique he uses is to align elements of the added image to the facial features of the underlying subject. It tricks the eye and the mind to discern facial features in the juxtaposition. The attention to minute detail is impressive – leaves emulate lip lines, crashing waves do service as hairstyles – it’s all rather captivating.

Siren Song V, 2011 by John Stezaker

What I took from this is the sense that one can really manipulate a photograph (or a photographic collage anyway) to make the viewer see things that aren’t there. It speaks to the power of the photograph to spark the imagination to fill in gaps. Often when an artist makes an image where the viewer is expected to participate in resolving the reading, ambiguity is encouraged – the viewer can populate the ‘gaps’ with whatever comes to mind. With these mask images, however,  Stezaker is very precisely steering the viewer to something that he wishes them to ‘see’ that isn’t present. It becomes kind of a puzzle, and the satisfaction of ‘solving’ a Stezaker mask image is a positive part of the viewing experience. Often such precision in image-making can come across as cold and soulless, but he has a light, often humorous touch that elevates these works.

Study visit discussion

As ever, a huge part of why the day was so useful was the discussion with other students, some of whom I’d met already, some I knew online but hadn’t previously encountered in real life, and a few new faces. On this study visit we had the luxury of a dedicated meeting room in the gallery and so could engage in an in-depth and thought-provoking exchange of views on the work without interruption or distraction.

A few interesting points came out of the discussion that I hadn’t considered myself at the time. We started by discussing whether Stezaker’s style is purely formal or something more meaningful. I started out thinking it was just a formal technique thing, but realised that I had, for the two series noted above anyway, found depths of signification. There were however other sets that left me unmoved, as all I could see was the technique. It became clear the more I considered it that Stezaker’s work isn’t just a formal exercise, even if I don’t always engage with his intent.

Other particular points that came up that I hadn’t thought about were Kate’s suggestion that mixing portraits and landscapes had a secondary message about photographic conventions, and Alan’s observation that there might be some significance to the lone work matted on black (we never got to the bottom of that one…)

Main takeaways

To summarise:

  • Shapes continue to inspire me and I’ve added negative shapes to the list
  • Manipulating the viewer to see something that isn’t there seems to be a fun idea :-)
  • I should go on more study visits