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A Short Post Not About Whether Found Images Are Photography

Stezaker has won the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2012 for his collages of found images. Get ready for grumbles from those that consider themselves Proper Photographers and Proper Photography to be all about taking pictures “out of the house”, as Foto8 put it.

I’m not going to enter into this debate and I will tell you why:

  1. Photography  is not owned by any one group whether they consider themselves to be following the ‘true path’ by photographing social happenings, processes and crises, or  consider themselves to be following the ‘truly artistic path’ of reconstituting found images and sequencing shots off google maps, or any of the other forms of camera related expression that lie in between. Of course many people who undertake the aforementioned activities don’t do so in order to mark out ‘true’ forms – which is all the better.
  2. I don’t care if you sneezed your stand-alone image / narrative / photopoem / image dialogue / collage / mixed-media photo piece / snap / print / blog out of your big toe as long as it is in some way engaging, challenging and authentic. Artistically, let’s keep it ends over methods. (‘Ethically’ is another question.)

Therefore, it is wondrously irrelevant whether or not Stezaker’s pieces were taken with his own shutter finger. They are his work, his idea; pushed forward into germination over many years. I am not interested in semantic games about what other words can be synonymised with the term photography. I am interested in the many roads and rivulets the practice, concepts and nature of photography can run down in order to expand and evolve. Collage and reproduction is surely one such rivulet. Every stream feeds back into the large pool of ideas. Challenging formats and methods are healthy and refreshing.

What I will say about Stezaker’s work is I’m a bit nonplussed.  I am bored by reconstituted, collaged, ripped up, pixelated or partially hidden images, but I am more bored by the old debates about it.  It is not beyond these mediums to become newly surprising and engaging, but right now I feel like I see a hell of a lot of it and a hell of a lot of arty types wetting themselves over how exciting it is and a hell of a lot of ‘Photographer’ types wetting themselves over how ‘not Proper Photography’ it is. I’m starting to think this is a feedback loop. Some photography editors and arts professionals seem to think this collage stuff is exciting because the ‘traditional’ Photographers are getting in a huff; some ‘traditional’ Photographers seem to think this stuff is meaningless anti-photography because the editors and arty types are getting all buzzed on it. Come on people! What a small visual world you are living in! Didn’t this reconstituting / processing / collaging of the photographic image start sometime early last century? When were the [anti-]tracts of postmodernism written? I can assure you it was not 2012.

To be fair to the Deutsche Börse Prize, this debate is not their agenda or outlook as far as I can tell, and the award for a lifetime’s worth of work takes a decent long view which removes them from the terms of such a debate. Stezaker didn’t win the prize because he is ‘controversial’ (which he’s not).

My criticism of the work is surely largely subjective and nothing to do with any perceived injury or challenge to Photography. When I first saw Stezaker’s work at Saatchi’s Out of Focus exhibition I thought: Hah! Neat! A lot of these half faces do rather eerily match up. A few minutes later, upon finding nothing more than a surfacery visual pun, I moved on and kind of forgot about it. I mean, I remembered the images, they are quite catchy, as puns, jokes and jingles tend to be – so far, so trademarkable – but they failed to remain in any emotional or intellectual sense. They did not move me. I can’t tell you whether they may move you or not.  I can only defend their right to win a photography prize and be considered as another ingredient in the pot of photography. And this, regardless of the fact that I feel I’ve seen these twice matched faces, vintage hairstyles and faded postcards a million times before, in one reformed form or another. Actually, thinking about it, perhaps this jaded nowheresville of repeated smooth cheek after repeated wet eye after repeated bow tie is the deeper narrative to these collages after all… If I yawn it’s ‘cos Stezaker wanted me to, so congratulations to him on a hard won award.

 

Madeleine Corcoran.

@Madeleine_Pearl

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I’d appreciate all your thoughts and debates on the awarding of the prize and Stezaker’s work  in the comment section!

 

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    15 comments to A Short Post Not About Whether Found Images Are Photography

    • I hear what you are saying. However when stood next to the photo montage work of say Raushenberg his work is the fumblings of a 6th form student both intellectually and technically. In my opinion.

      Awarding this prize for found cut and pastes, not a new process, not shocking, not evolutionary nor revolutionary is akin to awarding a baker a prize for plumbing. The only contentious element to the awarding of this prize, is the awarding of the prize, not in any way the work.

    • I do wonder what the prize stands for, is it about photography? And by that with the digital medium, the word ‘photography’ becomes more and more irrelevant. If it’s about forcing a very dull debate or to cause minor controversy within the niche that is the art photo industry. Well congratulations!! Success on that front.

      My main criticism is how does this prize relate to the lives of everyone else who’s not interested in going to art galleries and will ignore endless articles in newspapers about how fantastic it is.

      Personally I’m interested in seeing how photography can influence people’s opinions or show them another way of looking. It would be nice if prizes like this respected that.

    • Guy

      In all honesty I just don’t get it. It leaves me cold. It doesn’t appeal. It doesn’t make me want to find out more. It does zero. Nothing. Empty.

      The same goes for about 10 people I have just shown it to.

      Is that what’s it’s supposed to do?

      Is that how it’s judged?

      Am I guilty of over intellectualising? Or I am I not worth of ascending to a higher plain or cerebral activity.

    • Plagiarism. I used this idea years ago.

      However, it didn’t win a prize in the competition it was entered into.

      I wanted to create a piece of work , with a group of students who have learning difficulties, that challenged perceptions about disability. Here’s what I wrote to describe the work, which consists of a series of 1.9m triangular columns across which a series of portraits are ‘split’ with each half portrait on a different column:

      “This piece of work is designed to challenge the viewer. The series of aligned triangular columns present a variety of sides when viewed from different angles. By splitting a series of images across these sides, and varying the sizes of the two halves of the images, it forces viewers to have to find the appropriate perspective to view one individual portrait as a cohesive ‘whole’.

      It is impossible to see any more than one whole portrait at a time, and no two onlookers can ‘share’ the same space in order to both see one portrait at the same time. In fact the audience must themselves collaborate with each other to be able to find space to ‘see’ an individual portrait.

      In order to successfully view any of the portraits, viewers will need to work at finding the correct perspective, either back. forwards, up or down until the two portrait halves align.

      We hope the work will raise awareness of the fact that people with communication impairments such as deaf-blindness are able to communicate, but we must approach them in a specific way, on an individual basis.

      The message in the work is simple – if you can find a way to see a person as an individual, as a ‘whole’ but with specific communication needs, you will have started the process of understanding what they have to share with you.”

      Thanks Madeleine – your post has made me realise that my only mistake was to enter the wrong competition.

      http://multimedia.streamlinenettrial.co.uk/MySite/seemehearmeindex.html

    • Relax folks- artists aren’t the only insecure lot. These guys get lonely too, and the only way they can get noticed and remind us who they are is by making outstandingly controversial (ie- bad) decisions and making us all wonder at their power.

    • Jane Gillan

      A pastiche of Surrealism, perhaps, but please don’t get me wrong..I enjoy many surrealist images.

    • [...] after all. Madeleine Pearl explains why this doesn’t really matter in her ‘short post not about whether found images are photography‘ over on DuckRabbit’s blog, which is worth a read. Yakubu Al Hasan, Agbogbloshie [...]

    • David Firn

      I hadn’t seen John Stezaker’s work until the DB exhibition opened at Photographer’s gallery. My first impression was quite negative. I didn’t like the images and I didn’t see what was so special about the method. Rodchenko did it. I have friends who do very similar things who would not consider themselves photographers.

      But over the course of three or four visits they really grew on me. Can you imagine how long it took to find the pair of images that make up Muse (Film Portrait Collage) XVIII. That’s not just any old couple of stills thrown together for witty effect.

      I would love to know whether the jury was unanimous. I can’t quite imagine Martin Parr liking Pieter Hugo’s very-much on-trend “fine art reportage”, although I could see him voting for Riko Kawauchi (my favourite – her exhibition at Tokyo Met was amazing).

      I suppose what the Prize is saying is what Sean O’Hagan said in the Guardian when the nominations were announced: “In an eclectic field, Britain’s John Stezaker could win this year’s Deutsche Börse prize without picking up a camera.”

      You don’t need to pick up a camera to make photographs. (cue Man Ray snorting in his grave)

      As for the exhibition that most influenced photography in 2012. Well for me that is the Japanese Photobooks at TPG.

      But does that make the collectors, photographers. Hmmmm.

      • Thanks for your comment David.

        From what I understand all four judges got two votes each and couldn’t vote for a photographer twice. John Stezaker got four votes. The second closest got two.

    • David Firn

      Gets out pen and paper: Eight votes, no double votes. So everyone voted for John Steazaker .. sort of unanimous then.