And Time Folds is the title of a new exhibition and accompanying book at the Barbican in London that together celebrate the work of contemporary British photographer Vanessa Winship. Upon entering the Barbican Art Gallery, the visitor first encounters the superb photography of Dorothea Lange. Winship’s work is not nearly as well known—but best dispel any notion that And Time Folds is a b-side to the main attraction. The photographer’s work is complex and evolving, resisting easy assimilation into accustomed genres, situating itself—necessarily—on the periphery; if any one term could sum up her subject matter, it would be “the peripheral.” This is where the artist positions herself: on the outside, looking in at what is not comfortable or familiar.
Winship spent many years working on photographic projects in Eastern Europe and the Balkans—Turkey, Albania, and beyond—before focusing her lens on the United States. There are clear parallels between Winship’s early work and the work of Herodotus, a historian in ancient Greece who also travelled around the Black Sea littoral and other regions that were relatively unknown to his audience. Like Herodotus, Winship is motivated by a curiosity about non-mainstream cultures and a feel for the way history—palimpsest-like—renders the present over layers of the past that lurk below the surface. Herodotus and Winship are both itinerant inquirers; one drawing pictures with words, and the other with a camera.
In her first published series, Imagined States & Desires: A Balkan Journey (1999-2003), a shot taken in troubled southern Albania depicts a young girl looking out through a restaurant window. At first glance, the girl’s impish look catches the viewer’s eye—but on closer inspection, the glass reflects less pristine scenes that complicate the mise-en-scène: grey, time-worn buildings; a leaning, uniformed figure of authority; an apparitional fork pointing upwards in the bottom right; and even the photographer herself, hooded and holding her camera on the same level as the girl’s face. There is a lot going on here, a sense of shifting ground and uncertain identities that accumulate and deepen, lending an air of strange mischievousness to the girl’s expression. Taken as a whole, the photograph is emblematic of Winship’s ability to suggest meaning without making anything explicit.
In his excellent introduction to the elegantly-produced exhibition catalogue, David Chandler explains how a pregnant woman in her late teens joined an archaeological dig excavating the foundations of a local 9th-century church. The woman was given the task of washing and cleaning the unearthed skeletons in her kitchen sink. Viscerally close to material (but human) history, the woman, Vanessa Winship, became absorbed by the uncanny experience of touching and feeling the past in her hands and the future within her own body. Chandler draws no conclusions, but the story is an apt precursor to Winship’s future endeavors and the images she would take decades later—places where history lingers in the atmosphere as a sombre presence.
Winship’s next project, Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction (2002-06), explores her fascination with a body of water which is, as she puts it, “at the centre of three major empires,” though indifferent to the politics and prejudices that swirl around the six countries that lodge on its shores. Her Black Sea photos are teeming with human interest, but consciously avoid any narrative proposition or an interpretative point of view. In one photograph, young people rest on a concrete pier while adults sunbathe in the background. It’s a holiday-at-the-seaside shot, distantly echoing Tony Ray Jones, with a young girl commanding attention as she makes a dead vertical drop into the water. The spectators seem to share the enchantment of seeing the girl suspended in air with the viewer, defying gravity—a secular angel above the Black Sea.
Winship’s next series, Sweet Nothings (2007), focuses on girls (and their school uniforms) in eastern Anatolia. State education for girls in Turkey’s borderland territory—close to Iraq, Syria and Iran—was not part of the region’s traditional culture, and Winship records the importance of this development. A degree of equality is achieved by making each frame equidistant yet, as Winship comments, they are each given enough space for their own individuality. This comes across in “their fragility, their simplicity, their grace, their closeness to one another…their complete lack of posturing.”
The formality and studied precision that Winship practiced with her 4x5” portraits in Sweet Nothings continue into both Georgia: Seeds Carried by the Wind (2008-10) and Humber (2010). The new approach extends to the landscapes of two very different parts of the world—Georgia at the intersection of Europe and Asia; Hull a less than fashionable city in the east of Yorkshire—that, in her eyes, share a sense of being peripheral in a state of stasis: on the edge but not falling off it.
By this point in her career, Winship’s work was gaining momentum, and she was the recipient of a Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation award, which helped finance a road trip across swathes of America. The resulting project was She Dances on Jackson (2011-12), photographs taken in the West, Midwest and South of the United States. What emerges in this newer work is a refinement of her sensitivity to people’s individuality and backwater places, as well as a focus on untethered human subjects and moments fractured from nature. There is no discernible agenda in her images, but her photos are, as David Chandler puts it, “Inscribed by the fault lines of sadness and loss, and by much uncertainty.” In a previous interview, Winship said of her American odyssey: “I’m not looking for specifics. I’m attracted to something. It’s not about saying, ‘This represents America.’ It’s much less deliberate than that. The whole trip was about discovery.” Replace “America” here with “Albania” and the words could also apply to the aforementioned photograph of a young girl looking out a restaurant window. Winship is never programmatic; resonance, not resolution, is her concern.
Additionally, her ongoing project And Time Folds (2014- ) is more personal than anything she has created before, informed by (with the help of her grandchildren) an intimate awareness of how young people respond to nature’s patterns in the world around them. These photographs, in color as well as her usual black-and-white, have not been published before, and add a new dimension to her observations that remains a key characteristic in her very intricate body of work.
It is likely that the majority of visitors to the Barbican’s summer exhibition will be arriving to see Dorothea Lange’s work, and they have a lovely surprise awaiting them when they ascend the steps to discover And Times Folds. Vanessa Winship may be on the periphery, but only in a figurative sense. Her work reveals a discerning sensibility and an eye for the marginal, for what discloses itself at a tangent, and which, for this reason, is all the more remarkable and thought-provoking.
Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds runs until September 2, 2018, at Barbican Art Gallery in London. The book And Time Folds is published by MACK.