‘Seams and Interruptions: Surrealism and Photography’. David Campany with John Stezaker

Frieze Masters, no. 2, 2013

‘Seams and Interruptions. Surrealism and Photography.’

David Campany and John Stezaker in conversation.

First published in Frieze Masters magazine, no.2, 2013

David Campany: André Breton once defined a surrealist image as one in which two conceptions of reality co-exist. Susan Sontag saw photography as essentially surrealist in its supplanting of one version of reality with another. To which would you subscribe? Either? Both? Neither?

John Stezaker: I’d have to agree with both. Certainly surrealism, for me, is a revelation of the dialectical nature of the image – Maurice Blanchot’s idea of the image’s ‘essential ambiguity’. I would also agree with Sontag about the nature of the photograph as an uncanny double. This has been very much my particular take on the photograph, especially the film still.

DC: For decades, photography played very little part in the history or understanding of surrealism because, I suspect, it was rarely made for exhibition. But the surrealists’ books and journals were peppered with all manner of photographs. Some were made with self-consciously surrealist motivation but many were ‘discoveries’ from other fields. Man Ray was fascinated by EugèneAtget’s haunted, exhausted pictures of old Paris. Salvador Dalí wrote of the automatism of the camera image revealing strangeness in the commonest document. And they all seemed to be fascinated by film and film stills. The uncanny double, yes. But also the enigmatic fragment, cheap drama, excessive gestures, repressed desires.

JS: I share with the surrealists a fascination for the uncanny dimension of ordinary vernacular photographs, in other words, ones designated to some instrumental function. I am not so interested in the aesthetic uses of photography, especially the self-conscious ‘art photography’ of the surrealists. What Dalí seems to be interested in when he speaks of photography’s automatism was its unconsciousness or its unselfconsciousness. I suspect this was also their fascination with film stills. However, this is where I differ fundamentally from the surrealist dedication to the unconscious and to their investment in ‘excessive gestures and repressed desires’. The film still for me seems to work in a reverse way – the making conscious of cultural experience, which in my view is dominantly consumed unconsciously. The surrealists wanted to immerse the subject in the unconscious, though whether or not that is what they were doing is another matter. I feel closer to Walter Benjamin in wanting to give to the spectral dream world of everyday life, and especially cinematic consumption, a self-conscious awareness.

DC: A more overtly critical project?

JS: Yes. In other words, to make the unconscious conscious rather than the other way round. Though of course I am prepared to admit that my work may be doing something quite different from what I am aiming to do. Indeed, what interests me in what happens in the work is what appears in spite of my intentionality. If a work proceeds without digression from intention to realization, I am deeply suspicious of it. Perhaps one can only hope for a dialectical tension between what one calls conscious control and awareness and a submission to the unknowable dimension of the image. Certainly though, I am interested in the capacity of the film still to reveal what is hidden from conscious apprehension in ordinary cinematic consumption. For me, this is the twist that Situationism gave to surrealism in the late ’60s.

DC: That was around the time you started making art. Could you say more about that twist? It seems important in considering the politics of surrealism and also its contemporary currency.

JS: The twist I’m talking about is from the way the surrealists saw the need for an immersion in the unconscious – the need to expose the hidden ‘interior’, to the recognition that our entire culture of communications was a sort of collectivized unconscious from which we needed to awaken. In other words, the turning is from an idea of the unconscious as ‘interior’ world to the idea of it as being ‘out there’.

DC: In other words, ideology. Mass fantasy.

JS: Situationist strategies seemed to be devices designed to awaken consciousness of the image that was always beneath consciousness. For me, cinema represents an indefinite postponement of the image and I feel that the film still offered the possibility of consciousness catching up with this perpetually fugitive image. Détournement represented a staging of the return of the image to consciousness.

DC: Turning the cultural expressions of the capitalist system against themselves.

JS: Though I have to say that I was scarcely aware of any of this in the late ’60s when my own collage practice was first developing. As a student, I was most aware of trying to avoid a reading of my collages as Pop. That’s why the 1969 show of Kapitalistischen Realismus was so important for me – my first encounter with Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke.

DC: I wonder if the line between awakening and occultation, between critique and enigma can ever be clear, can ever be fixed. So much depends on the cultural moment in which the work is made, the materials being used, the motifs being invoked, the audience’s frame of reference and so forth. The shifts in the readings of the work of Polke and Richter since Kapitalistischen Realismus would seem to attest to this. I know Max Ernst’s collages have been important to you, especially those in his book Une semaine de bonté (A week of kindness,1934), which were made from material that was around 50 years old at the time. Many of your own collages use source material from the 1940s to the 1960s. Is the collective unconscious or collective dream here a dream of the past, about the past, through the past? Can you imagine making collages with contemporary images, or is the delay, the return to the ‘just forgotten’ in culture, an essential aspect?

JS: You are, of course, totally correct about the relationship between the knowable and the unknowable dimensions of the image and any claims I might make about rendering ‘conscious’ as opposed to rendering unconscious have to be considered against the background of what I think of as the progressive encroachment of the unknowable in the work. I hesitate in this context in even calling it ‘my work’ because what interests me the most is always what emerges unpredictably from the image collection in spite of any aims or intentions which might have initiated the work. Increasingly, I tend to think of the image collection as a huge unknowable collective consciousness or unconsciousness within which I am something like a clerical conduit. Interestingly, in my view, only in his collage novels did Ernst abandon his own intentionalities and allow the strangeness of his material to speak for itself. My own personal encounter with Une semaine de bonté was an unforgettable moment and occurred on my very first day as an art student during a tour of the college facilities. Whilst showing us the library, William Coldstream of the rare book section pulled out a first edition of Ernst’s photo-novel at random. I found myself so gripped by this encounter that I abandoned the rest of the tour to feast on these images. As you point out, the found material was already anachronistic and I began to feel it justified my own fascination for found images that had lost their currency and which in the process had revealed something of the strangeness of images in general. That ‘just forgotten’ sense does seem essential to what fascinates me in images. In the past, this attachment has felt like an impediment. The whole ethos of appropriation art seemed to be about an alternative way of registering something of the culture we inhabit. I am not interested in any such indexical or iconic representation of the world. I have no real answer as to where my fascination for such images comes from but it certainly has nothing to do with any kind of nostalgic attachment to a mythic past – so not ‘a dream of the past or about the past’. These images which through time have shed most of their representational and symbolic functions and their instrumental connections with the world for which they were produced, fascinate me for what is left over – the residual. I think of it as being a bit like an alchemical process of filtration, but in reverse – collecting the nigredo, in the alchemical sense of blackness or decomposition. It is the antithesis of the alchemical distillate (representing purity or essence) and which is equated with lucidity and transparency (like the crystal). By contrast, nigredo is what is filtered out as impurity. It always seemed to me that the surrealists interest in alchemy was in reverse – an attachment to shadow and the impure. What is there in the image when everything else has gone? It is a confrontation with nothing and yet a mysterious something.

What I think is significant is that the majority of the images used in my work were produced before I was born – they come from a world before me, and I tend to sub-divide them into either parental images (predominantly film portraits and stills) and grand-parental images (predominantly topographical – postcards and the material used in my ‘3rd Person Archive’, 1976- ).

DC: There’s a strong case that the importance of surrealism lies in this act of selection and the attention to context, which brings us back to printed matter. Perhaps the great surrealists are editors, ‘filterers’ to use your term, those with the desire and critical ability to choose and present common images in such a way that we are forced to reconfigure perceptions and values. I’m thinking of Georges Bataille’s editing of the dissident surrealist journal Documents: familiar photographs made strange and uncontainable by their placement on the page. Breton’s editing of the journal Minotaure. Paul-Gustave Van Hecke, the editor of Variétés. And later, Guy Debord’s reworking of media images and Richard Prince’s early appropriations of advertising.

 JS: Yes, because cinema is the unconscious. Cinema is the technological dream state; it is what makes it a collective or collectivized unconscious. I can’t help feeling that the discovery of cinema and the unconscious are connected.

DC: Freud began to publish in 1895, the year of the invention of cinema. He died in 1939, at the arrival of commercial colour cinema. I often wonder if he got to see a colour movie.

JS: Early 20th century artists had to resituate themselves in relationship to images – no longer as their primary producers but as their consumers. Their manipulation thenceforth had to begin with the act of reception. Cinema makes the editing of pre-existing visual material into the primary creative act. Equivalently, the surrealists had to become monteurs of pre-existing material, whether it be commodity images or dream images. In both, the image exists beforehand, it is being recalled. At the moment that the image becomes part of the everyday world, art changes from making to bricolage. For Picasso, this was a reversion to tribalism. The key figure in this change was Picasso and his early foundational collages. However, against this realization, he always asserted the primacy and sovereignty of making over receiving. It was down to the surrealists to embrace photography and cinema as their primary material. In a world in which the cinematic image (as well as the commodity image) has taken over as the central spectacle of the image, art could only be secondary.

DC: In his biography of Jean-Luc Godard Colin McCabe declares: ‘in a world in which we are entertained from cradle to grave whether we like it or not, the ability to rework image and dialogue […] may be the key to both psychic and political health’.

JS The surrealists, and Bataille in particular, realized the particular power of this secondary vantage point and turned it in to a new kind of sovereignty through its potential power of transformation in what was essentially a parasitic relationship with the culture of images. One of the most dominant images that the surrealists had of their own practice was a parasitic or vampiric relationship with spectacular culture. Bataille defined image fascination as ‘morose delectation’. Surrealism was a vantage point on the technical image that would drain it of life in order to liberate it to a freedom of the imagination, freeing its citizens from the compulsion of the collective dream.

My interest in the examples you cite is not so much in the way they embrace the montage principle that underlies the momentum of contemporary consumer culture but in the way that they deprive communication of its momentum and legibility. In other words, the way these examples show the seams and interrupt the collective dream.

DC: Seams and interruptions create new openings, and we can never be sure what will fill those openings. It may not be what we think it will be. I sense this too is what makes the line between critique and poetry so unclear in surrealist imagery.

JS: The question of seams and interruptions becomes dominant in this new relationship with the image as already-there and complete. Much of surrealist and Dada interventions in film and photography seemed aimed at subtracting from this completeness of the technological image in order to introduce seams and interruptions into the seamlessness and continuity of the media image. Moholy-Nagy’s photograms or Man Rays solarizations can be seen as re-instating the lost contour of graphic representation into the contour-less space of the photograph. Absences – the references to amputation and the loss of limbs in Greek sculpture in Jean Cocteau and Man Ray’s images of Lee Miller make it clear that the seam or the interruption is there to bring about an awareness of the relationship between the image and death, subverting the normative relationship with life. Cocteau was the first to describe film as ‘death 24 frames per second’ and it seemed that it required this deathly sense of the image to reinstate poetry into the literalism of cinema. An awareness of the limits of the image, it seems, brings about a relationship with the ultimate interruption of death. The same could be said of Man Ray’s strategies to make the interruption and the seam a central punctuation of the photograph.

DC: This makes me think of Eli’s Lotar’s 1929 image of cows’ hooves lined up neatly outside the abattoir at La Villette, Paris, published in a number of journals (Documents, Variétés, Jazz and VU). The formal unity of the composition makes the severance of the limbs all the more disturbing. But against this ruins the sense, equally strong in surrealism, that no image is ever entirely ‘already-there’, or complete as you put it. Displace into unfamiliar territory even the most seamless and tame image and it unravels, undoes itself. Seams and interruptions can be discursive and contextual, rather than formal. This is closer to the logic of the Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. Familiar and functional objects encountered out of place. (Interestingly, Duchamp spoke of wanting the encounter with the readymade to be akin to the immediate shock of a photographic snapshot). I think of Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s book Evidence (1977) as an extension of this surrealist impulse. Perfectly functional images from the archives of the police, science labs and fire departments become enigmatic totems when plucked and placed on white pages.

JS: Yes, I totally agree with you about the contextual unraveling of the normative photographic image and clearly, as you would expect from my work, I have a preference for these implicit or hidden seams and interruptions of the found photographic image. It is interesting to see how often the truncated or dismembered body features in these ‘contextual’ estrangements of the image. Besides the Lotar image I also thought of Boiffard’s ‘Big Toe’ image, also published in Documents. Since you mentioned Duchamp, I thought it might be interesting to consider the most famous of all miss-uses of forensic photography: the crime scene photograph of the dismembered body of Elizabeth Short from the ‘Black Dahlia murder’ which was passed around amongst the surrealists and appears to be the visual source of Duchamp’s last work Etant Donnés.

DC: And of course the image that most troubled Bataille, the one he kept on his desk, was a particularly gruesome Chinese photograph of lingchi, ‘death by a thousand cuts’. These are forceful, gripping, uncompromising pictures that rely on the sheer indexical force of photography to dramatize their subjects. Are we confronting here the fact that what is truly essential and most important about photography is far beyond art, and that this is why it has been so important to surrealism? After all, surrealism was not primarily an art movement, but a set of experimental attitudes towards research, documents, aesthetic experience, and the dissolving of boundaries between discourses. For example Bataille’s Documents billed itself as a journal of ‘Doctrines, Archéologie, Beaux-arts, Ethnographie, Variétés’; and Minotaure declared its interest in ‘The Plastic Arts, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Ethnology, Mythology, Spectacles, Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis’. Photography, pre-eminently, has a place in all these domains. Its most singular and important quality is its capacity to belong everywhere and nowhere.

JS: I have to say I doubt that the reasons for Bataille keeping the torture image close to him throughout his life was just because it troubled him. I think there were all kinds of other investments going on there. Somewhere he compared the ecstatic face of the victim with that of Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1652) and it is worth mentioning that he saw the face of the Saint as an image of a woman in orgasm. I suspect his attachment to the image was good deal more ambiguous. They used to give the victims of this death of a thousand cuts heavy doses of opium to keep them conscious – an integral part of this sacrificial spectacle.

DC: Yes, in the still image at least there is often very little to separate the depiction of faces in agony and faces in ecstasy. That’s the ‘trouble’ Bataille felt, a trouble that really can’t be talked away or surmounted.

JS: I agree. Though paradoxically the image of a torture victim yielding to ecstatic transcendence is arguably the central image of Western Christian culture in the Crucifixion. What Blanchot calls the ‘essential ambiguity’ of the image describes exactly this unsettling presence of the image. And yet such ambiguity is precisely what photography predominantly exorcises from the image. The horror images favoured by the surrealists disrupt the dominant mode of photographic lucidity. These images are confrontations with the total inadequacies of the photographic image to communicate the reality with which it has only an indexical link.

DC: And this, it seems to me, is far beyond art.

JS: The manifest failure of the image to bring forth or conversely to hold at bay means that in these rare cases the subject matter seems to overwhelm its representation and challenge the safety of the photographic or cinematic threshold. This is the reason why such images become psychically indelible, in other words the opposite of the usual relationship with the photographic image. My own guess is that Bataille kept this torture image on his desk to see if he could make it go away, make it cease to be an image and rejoin the indifference of everyday photography.

The project of surrealism seems to a matter of finding a way of creating a relationship with the unknowable (or the unconscious) whilst using a pictorial vernacular which emerged from technological culture whose spirit of lucidity and dedication to the knowable meant the banishment of just such occult relationships. The only way of achieving this paradoxical objective is in those momentary lapses of the photograph, through the self-estrangement and ambiguity of the image. Surrealism is, in this sense, the (perhaps impossible) return of the technologically repressed.

DC: So maybe Breton and Sontag were both right. The co-existing realities that characterize the surreal are best summoned forth by the photograph with its paradoxical claims to truth and suggestion.