Ways of Seeing

Our eyes register thousands of images everyday. Advertisements, photographs, still pictures and moving pictures invade our metropolitan lives. John Stezaker’s vision in his debut exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery leads the way and makes us look – and think – twice with his unique collection of re-doctored photographs that propose new readings of old images. Stezaker’s works take classic images from familiar places – postcards, film stills, celebrity headshots, nature landscapes, and illustrations from books – and manipulate them to manufacture new meanings. Curated to hang simply and unimaginatively as ordinary photographs might be exhibited, Stezaker’s pieces are by no means simple or unimaginative. By creating collages out of seemingly displaced images, Stezaker comments on the possibility of pictures in a world where so many images are perpetually and publically circulated, absorbed and consumed.

In his Tabula Rasa series, Stezaker inserts images into other images, forging unexpected inter-visual relationships. The most unexpected pictorial partnership – that of the photographed image of the Hollywood actress, both products of urban culture (the photograph and the actress), with nature – can be found in Tabula Rasa II. Nature’s intrusion in this picture, with a cliff jutting out over the sea in place of the actress’s eyes and nose, is disarming, unnatural. In implicating nature as invader here, Stezaker subverts the typical idea to which we are so accustomed: that nature is disrupted by urbanisation, not the other way round.

By manipulating photographed images to such effect, Stezaker steals the camera from the photographer’s poised hand and starts shooting. Like Photoshop, but better, Stezaker refocuses, resizes, zooms in and out, crops, isolates and fragments images. He shoots questions about images and how we see them – the context in which we see a picture; what we choose to look at; how we collate and discard images – whilst considering image as commodity, and our role as thinking visual consumers.

As Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography, ‘photographs are evidence not only of what’s there but of what an individual sees, not just a record but an evaluation of the world.’ Indeed, ‘[p]hotographers were supposed to do more than just see the world as it is…they were to create interest, by new visual decisions.’ John Stezaker is not a photographer. It’s ‘visual decisions’ of this kind, however, that Stezaker makes as he guides new images, angles and perspectives into eye-sight; not just visual ones but conceptual ones, prescribing alternative ways of seeing through innovative modes of expression, making us challenge what we view whilst pointing out the subversive power of a photograph.

The above review of the John Stezaker exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, 29 January – 18 March 2011 was published in Cub magazine, March 2011.

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