The Barbican Art Gallery, in London, has just presented a large retrospective of Vanessa Winship’s work, alongside an exhibition of Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange. Winship’s exhibition, and accompanying catalogue published by MACK, spanned her entire career, from her early trips to the Balkans in the late ’90s to her most recent study in colour of everyday surroundings. Apart from these recent photographs, the British photographer has mainly worked in black and white, establishing herself in the tradition of socially charged documentary photography incarnated by Lange. Like her, Winship engaged with those largely ignored, stepping away from the urgency of photojournalism to draw a more nuanced portrait of places and people that, beyond being torn by conflict, also struggle to reconcile tradition and modernity.
And Time Folds introduces Winship’s work with a long preface by David Chandler, filled with autobiographical details. These hints at Winship’s personal life lead to a multi-layered understanding of her work. Looking at her melancholic landscape photographs of Barton-upon-Humber, a small town in Northern England where she grew up, one can’t help but imagine a younger Winship’s emotional world during the time of the construction of the largest single-span suspension bridge in the world – one that would alter her childhood landscape forever.
The book is articulated in reverse chronology, starting with her most recent works. The progression proves Winship’s ability to constantly reinvent, or more accurately, sharpen, her visual language – a strength that, we learn in Chandler’s text, reflects her own adaptation to the ever-changing geographical and emotional situations that she finds herself in. In the ’90s, she shot in 35mm. Her subjects’ consent shines through the images, though never as strikingly as after she traded her 35mm for a large format camera, feeding her need for human connection. With this new process, not only does she acknowledge her presence, but she also gives room for each individuality to reveal and express itself.
In her nearly typological portraits of school girls in Eastern Turkey, a series entitled Sweet Nothings (2007), we are drawn to study each details of the girls’ uniforms to grasp each revealing detail. Winship writes, “I hoped the symbol of the uniform, the distance in repetition, and the austerity of the landscape would represent one thing; but I also hoped to draw attention to the idea of these young girls poised at the moment where possibility lies, a time where the presentation of self teeters into consciousness.”
Winship’s notes, particularly present in her diary-like documentation of the Balkans and the Black Sea region, emphasize her poetry, her constant navigation “between chronicle and fiction”, as her Black Sea series’ title states. Accompanying a group portrait of bare-chest wrestlers resting on stadium benches in explicit fraternity, a few lines read, “Comfortable in their victory, they were together as one. They seemed absorbed not only by the game, but also by echoes from their place in another time, when they were heroes”. Winship’s formidable skill at portraiture turns each character into a symbol. By extension, her treatment of architecture, places and object carry out the same transformation from mundane to iconic.
This is made clear in her portrait of contemporary United States. As haunting as such an undertaking may be, given the monumental legacy left by photographers such as Shore, Evans and Frank, Winship nonetheless drew with “She dances on Jackson” (2011-2012) a humble, yet powerful study of dismissed America. Rejecting the spectacular, she exposes the ordinary, infusing her photographs with rare intimacy. This dedication to focus on otherwise overlooked people and scenes, to cherish the simple, is key to approaching her newer work – an ongoing colour series of seemingly random slices of life revealingly introduced by one crucial piece of advice by Graham Swift. “Children, be curious. Nothing is worse (I know it) than when curiosity stops”, it reads, nonchalantly disclosing Winship’s life-long drive.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Laurence Cornet
Below, images and selected spreads from As Time Folds by Vanessa Winship: