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Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2012: John Stezaker

We meet the king of cut-up photography using vintage pictures of forgotten film stars in bygone eras

King of cut-ups John Stezaker has been awarded the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2012. While this accolade may be for photography it is not Stezaker's technique with a camera that won over the judging panel - which included Martin Parr, François Hébel, the curator Beatrix Ruf, Kunsthalle Zürich and Anne-Marie Beckmann - but his use of the photographs themselves.

The early film portraits present personalities in a superficial veneer, but I find that only by combining them do believable personalities emerge.

He works much in the same vein as Eduoardo Paolozzi and the European string of 20th century collagists who redefined the position of an ‘artist’ and a photographer in the modern world by reapprorpriating familiar images to an uncanny effect. He cuts, chops and collages the faces of found objects to produce new meanings and new relationships. Stezaker usually uses black-and-white images of bygone and forgotten movie stars, vintage postcards and magazines to create his entrancing pieces. Dazed Digital caught up with the artist himself. 

Dazed Digital: What does this prize mean to you?
John Stezaker:
It’s a great honour of course, but doubly so as a non-photographer. As my practice involves a parasitic dependence on photography, it feels as though the prize is an acknowledgment by the host – perhaps even a reciprocal symbiosis. 

DD: How do you collect and collate your images?
John Stezaker:
Second hand bookshops are my diminishing source. But once I know what I want, I do what everyone else does and look online. 

DD: Your work sometimes has a sad humour to it – can you explain why this is and how you create such a cunning effect?
John Stezaker:
I am glad you appreciate the mood of the work. I try to avoid contriving to do anything. It is more that things appear to me in a much more impersonal way. I only ever feel as though the work has started when my contrivances and intentions have been forgotten.

DD: Your work uncannily juxtaposes famed images with the unknown through paste ups - what has kept this topic compelling to you over your career?
John Stezaker:
I am not sure what draws me to 1940’s film portraits. It is a period from before I was born. It is said that to get a sense of the world in one’s absence is to experience the original sense of the sublime. The early film portraits present personalities in a superficial veneer, but I find that only by combining them do believable personalities emerge. I don’t know why I keep coming back to these faces from the past. 

DD: In the past you used to talk about your work in terms of ‘mass culture’ why do you think your images are so accessible and do you like this aspect about them?
John Stezaker:
Appropriation pivots on the act of removal of the image from circulation and of meanings and associations that reveal themselves in this dissociation. I am more used to the idea of secluding images from circulation rather than contributing to the flow. So I find what you say about my images being accessible as slightly frightening. But perhaps I should expect this because I feel collage is closest to the vantage point of the consumer.