In an era where women are finally being recognised for their contribution to humanity it is apposite that two female photographers who have demonstrated their strength, integrity, passion, empathy and creativity should feature at the Barbican’s double-header retrospective the Politics of Seeing, reviewing Dorothea Lange’s influential career and contemporary documentary photographer Vanessa Winship titled And Time Folds. This is the second show this year dedicated to photography as part of the Art of Change season that began with Another Kind of Life which illustrated the concern photographers have regarding those who are on the margins of society; the period covered began with Diane Arbus in the 1960s and completed with contemporary work from Katy Grannan and Teresa Margolies; intriguing, whether by accident or not, to see female photographers book-ending this sometimes disturbing documentary show as a lead into the Lange/Winship. The objective set out for the Art of Change season, which will run with a final exhibition into January 2019, is to investigate how artists have responded to and often influenced world social and political topography; given that we are in a period where art itself is being marginalised and is fighting for its own existence certainly within education, the show is an important acknowledgement that the medium does not exist in a vacuum and is often at the forefront of provocation, change and the ramification of the latter. Lange’s work requires little introduction, although defined by the Farm Security Administration output from the late 1930s, especially the iconic Migrant Mother image, this retrospective delivered some revelations; early commercial portrait work from her San Francisco Bay Area studio produced hauntingly beautiful images that illustrate Lange’s ability to connect with subjects. Unseen for many years due to government restrictions, Lange’s war time work on shipyards in collaboration with Ansel Adams and her images of internment camps for Japanese Americans established after the Pearl Harbour raid were handled with the same degree of respect and personal connection that Lange demonstrated with all her subjects. A lifetime visual activist, projects that investigated the injustices of the post war American judiciary; feminist and environmentalist made public the damming of Putah Creek the loss of a valley and its community, Lange’s work has far more breadth than she is credited for. Naturally the majority of Politics of Seeing is dedicated the FSA work, the Migrant Mother gets a discrete room all of its own along with other images from the same sitting thus offering a greater understanding of the shooting rational used, a further indication of the image’s importance in terms of documentary photography history as well as its own seminal depression era narrative.
At first glance Vanessa Winship’s work seems out of the documentary traditionalist mould; an essay shot at the 1998 World Junior Ballroom Dancing competition won Winship a World Press Association prize and was the model of documentary conformity. It would be her 1999-2003 journeys through the Balkans and countries that bound the Dead Sea that resulted in a series of documentary projects where Winship began to re-write her established visual language. Although shooting in black and white all be it with a move to large format, Winship shunned the established formality of photojournalism to evolve a new signature narrative that sought to find human relations and context through a more instant and intimate approach; a move to consider the narrative more in the edit also saw her work gain a literary feel with written word adding to the visual interpretation.
The change of format to 5”/4”, again a move from the excepted documentary practice with 35mil supported this more considered way of thinking through the camera, this is evident in both her considered portraiture and landscape, new components of the overarching narrative construction rather than recording and diarising what occurred. A period of wandering eventually brought Winship home to the banks of the Humber where she produced a landscape response to the period of absence and the emotions she felt from the return. There is a mournful atmosphere evident in the river views, the thrust of the tide leaving what look like deep cuts in the mud flats maybe as signifiers of the wounds of time passing and constant flux that related to a transitional life. 2011 proved to be a seminal moment professionally and personally; gaining the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award that supports projects that may not otherwise be undertaken set Winship on what many documentary photographers would feel was the ultimate road trip, to America. The project began under the personal cloud of family illness that brought Winship home again to be with her father for the final few days of his life part way through the shoot. Her return to America to complete what would become she dances on Jackson was tempered by loss and separation that sharpened her empathic approach to subjects even more as she searched for an interpretation of the fabled ‘American Dream’. The resulting images are a mix of barren urban and rural landscapes and portraiture some of which are timeless in their interpretation of the failure of that dream; the images read as a portrait of isolation and societal seclusion. An added joy is the inclusion of Winships exquisite hand made journals detailing the journey that resulted in she dances on Jackson. Winship is something of photographic chameleon, her latest work although still narrative based has a fine art feel to the concept; And Time Folds, also the overarching title for the show, is an exploration of time spent with her granddaughter. A refresh or reboot of seeing, a child like amazement of all these newly found things or experiences clearly has Winship back at home mentally as well as physically as she is now based back in her childhood town on the Humber estuary. A sublime coupling that demonstrates extraordinary vision of two photographers from different eras and runs until September 2nd 2018.