Two males, three females holding cocktail glasses look on from the back of the room. They have concern scored into their faces. Before them stands a dignified-looking woman in open-toed heels, her hands crossed in front of her. It is clear she is concerned most.
In the John Stezaker exhibition at the Whitworth in Manchester there are a number of such scenes: monochromatic photographs and stills of B-movies from the 1950s and 1960s. But amiss in this, and other scenes too, is a violent quadrilateral: a guillotine of sorts, which erases, cuts out, the figure in the foreground.
In Stezaker’s ‘Tabula Rasa’ series (1990–2009), as it is known, he excises elements from photographs, leaving what looks like an angled white screen in their place. It calls to mind loss — a sort of psychological blankness or a disappearance of the mind, or the Stalinist doctoring of photographs to extirpate the memory of Leon Trotsky; but what is most fascinating about Stezaker’s work is that the removal of elements paradoxically adds something to the whole.
The removal of the foreground in the cocktail scene of ‘Tabula Rasa XXX’ (2011) changes the foreground’s constituency.
The supporting cast are brought into the limelight.
The piece becomes about concern itself.
Traversing the room, I have in the back of my mind the accolade given to Stezaker’s collages and montages by other commentators: that he is questioning the constitution of the image. I do not disagree with this assessment, but to say nothing of Stezaker’s wit — his cheek — is to view his work first and foremost as an intellectual pursuit, as X-rays of the skeleton of the photograph. But there is more to it than that.
There is joy in his anthropomorphisation of a bridge in his ‘Mask XII’ (2005) collage, as its arches become eyes; in ‘Siren Song V’ (2011) and ‘Mask CCXXI’ (2016) as the tumult of the stormy sea is transformed into the stirred libidos of two models; and in ‘Untitled’ (2016) in which the full body of one woman is joined to the legs of another by a cliff-face of the Giant’s Causeway — a geological pantomime horse.
Unlike portraiture or sculpture, what we can be sure of is that the photograph is a record of what has been — this is the essence of Roland Barthes’s sadness when he looks upon a photograph of his mother as a child in Camera Lucida (1980). The three collages donated by John Stezaker himself and the nineteen gifted to the Whitworth by Karsten Schubert which make up the works on display feel twice as large, as deep, and numerous as they are because Stezaker’s work, altering the plane of the photograph, illustrates not what has been or what can be but what can not be except for in the photograph. Not snapshots of worlds; but worlds of snapshots.
John Stezaker, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.
1 December 2017 – 1 June 2018.
Jordan Harrison-Twist is a writer and designer based in Manchester.