My sense when looking at Vanessa Winship’s portraiture is never troubled by any doubt that she loves her subjects, in however momentary and partial a way. The poise she grants them in their awkwardness, and in their often tremulous youth, speaks to some deep wellspring of affection, and a willingness not to preconceive the way in which they each might see themselves as she watches them. I have a feeling – based in the consistent evenness of their gaze – that the image has been made at a point where the generosity with which her subjects lent themselves to her frame resolves itself clearly on the ground glass with deep intensity, and Vanessa trips the shutter and prays. Prays that the simple and enigmatic gift of their appearance is equal to the moment in which she encountered it so viscerally. Prays that her portrait is lucid enough to erase its own particular trappings and bring us into the immediacy of the moment in which it was made.
In the making of all the work shown here, Vanessa Winship lent not just her ‘listening eye’ but herself and her family life to a decade-long period living among and learning from people in a region about which she knew and heard relatively little, who seemed so nearby and at the same time so remote. Whatever she knew about Turkey, or about Georgia before leaving, and whatever hardened reductive tropes she might have picked up along the way she left outside the boundaries of her photographic frame. She was at the pier and in the market and on the street and in the bus and out to sea; she was tucked up in the shadows of the church, or up on rooftops waiting, or ghosting through train cabins and foyers and across beaches, or wherever best she might peel back the apparent strangeness to reveal what was mundane and wondrously elusive and proper to an unfamiliar place and people.
Her work in this region is characterised by a near otherworldly grace, and a romantic anachronism. Her photographs are quiet, elegant, apparently simple, filled with a bare minimum of information in order that the properly esoteric marvel of each elliptical instant is given room to breathe, and to draw us into its orbit. The arc of the work she made in Turkey and Georgia over the course of that decade is one in which we can see the increasing influence of a sympathetic curiosity and a measured, generously poetic eye encountering bewilderingly simple beauty, and lending to it an ever increasingly individuated splendour.
Already in the early Black Sea work there is a certain magical strangeness, an ethereal off-kilter grace in posture, a monumentality in the humblest of corners, a sense of the epic coexisting with the minutiae and the mundane. Already in that early work her photographs uncover the broad influence of the statuesque, in rituals, in garb, in architecture and landscape, in the most unreconstructed of spaces, in the most profound of anachronisms, and in the eyes and the bearing of the people inhabiting the region. Her lens marvels at the unflinching insistence by her subjects on chiselling out some slender respite for themselves, whatever the extremity, the meagreness of resources, the seeming hardship of circumstance. Each allot to themselves some small pocket of poetry and of grandeur.
She seems to have drifted along with the currents of ordinary life, not willing to see herself drawn by the convulsions of an unstable political environment, or the customary trappings of poverty, or the more obvious iconography of conflict — all of which were in ready supply during her long stay. She attended gymnasia and schools, conference buildings and bakeries and dance studios, and in these she found all the ordinary uncertainties one would expect in the faces of children and young adolescent boys and girls: stupefaction, bravery, confusion, shyness, warmth, generosity, love, loneliness, equanimity, but also something rarer and more delicate — a certain sagacity that settles around the brows, in the evenness of the shoulders and the limpid gaze, a gentle resolute stoicism uncommon in youth in so many places except, apparently, here.
In her earliest Black Sea work we see Winship edging closer, stepping farther out, beginning to locate the strange commingling of histories so seemingly opposed or antithetical, but somehow settled into a leisurely rhythm and inscribed most clearly in the garb and posture of the people that surround her. As her confidence must have grown over the course of the many years she spent there, so she seems to have permitted herself a greater degree of physical intimacy, worked in a more precise, narrower and more specific depth of field, begun to single out young individuals in whom the reciprocal exchanges between a long history and an uncertain future remained unresolved. The recurrence of uniforms, and of an imagery bound up with liminal spaces points to an opening through which she began to approach individuals, and discover in them the traces of those currents that give the region its air of modern antiquity, and of indeterminate possibility. Scattered across the breadth of the Turkey she saw young schoolgirls in virtually identical dress, like a mnemonic key to something inscrutable and yet essential in the landscape and the shape of the country. Their status, their right even to be schooled spoke in some integral way to tensions between tradition and government, between culture and prospects, and in the lands bordering Iraq, Iran and Armenia she began to photograph them in ones and twos, alone or with close friends and siblings — rendered in uncertain spaces somehow analogous to the unsettled tensions of which their lives were a part.
In Sweet Nothings we are brought into the vivid and reverent simplicity of Vanessa’s momentary encounters with these beautiful young girls. Where her earlier work had an air of something unrequited, these photographs are full of an intimate, reciprocal and wonderfully open affection. The modest, subtle accommodations of composition are here designed to lend body and weight to her subjects, to lend to them space enough to achieve an unhurried moment of self-expression, whatever the particular vagaries of the result. While there is in a number of them some essential uncertainty, this is wedded always to an earnestness that is so beguiling that it forces us to rely on our own good graces. These young girls impel us to recall the uncertainties of our own youth in judging the nature of theirs.
My abiding sense of the photographs in Sweet Nothings is of a tender, frank and unprepossessing modesty, and of a certain patient calm set forth against the vast breadth of sky and history and tradition and formality that seems either to be looming in the corners, or whispering steadily about. Time has definitively slowed down to a leaden pulse in these borderlands. Distances are measured here in the careworn passage of feet along dirt tracks. It seems that here even a slight shift on the axis of some custom might take on the aspect of a revolution, as though in the thin air at this altitude even the water in the streams might boil over. Against all of this the portraits sing with such unflinching gentleness as to reaffirm the virtue of small tender mercies, whatever the wider odds at play.
Where we are here, it feels slight enough to be ethereal; we are enveloped in a powerful and yet distant symbolism of history. That sense of distance is in part a measure of the sparseness of what is described by Vanessa’s lens, but it is also inscribed in the uneven concrete floors, the lumpen surface of the earth, the well travelled soles of her subject’s shoes. All of this distance is leavened by the bright and instinctual togetherness of the schoolgirls – their reflexive sense of sorority, and the gift of our lucid proximity to them.
The Sweet Nothings portraits continually induce from me an imaginary exchange with their subjects. I cannot help but to try to imagine, if they were to speak to us suddenly and quietly, what they might say. I imagine that if they were to ask of us anything, it might be ‘How do you see me as I am seeing myself, stood here at this moment, lending myself to your gaze as you are moved to return my own?’ They are none of them begrudging, each of them patient – as patient as best they may be in this wedge of light that once was a hilltop or a courtyard, a playground or a schoolroom, and now has become a stage. In the remarkable breadth of faces they unwittingly describe an arc of history that stretches back through centuries, hinting here or there at an Ottoman or Macedonian or Persian empire – casually weaving a tapestry as rich as the age of their region is long. They are still, but not yet able or inclined to paper over uncertainty with truculence or sass, resting a supporting forearm against that of a friend, perhaps touching palm to knuckle at the seam along which they join themselves to each other so that courage is shared umbilically between two who care for one another. They may ask us ‘Why do you study us so?’
What would we reply?
‘Because this world you verge on inheriting is already more yours than it is ours, and we wonder whether you sense that this is so? Because life renews itself in so many small ways, and part of that renewal is in the long slow trudge up that windy hillside into this whistling schoolroom? Because your instinctive togetherness is a gift you may have to fight to retain, and we know the ache of its loss? Because you are kind? Because in you are myriad histories, and a mystery we can hope to describe but never answer? Because you are courageous – willing to entrust yourself to this unfamiliar look? Because you are generous? Because you are beautiful?’
“I think to put it most simply, [portraiture] is possibly the most direct way photographically to make human contact. I can work very intimately when I work in a reportage style but my presence, and that of the viewer, is completely invisible and passive. This way of working has a place of course, but for me, when I make a portrait there can be no denying another presence, (myself and that of the viewer), and although I am not seeking for these images to be about me (they are this too), I am very much part of the process, and as such, need to take a certain responsibility for the gaze that returns to me.” — Vanessa Winship, interview with Jörg Colberg
Then, in Georgia, seemingly all of an instant (we know it cannot have been): a sudden explosion in scale. In the Georgia work landscape recurs, but charged everywhere with allusion to a history of monuments and vastness, of folly and deep tradition, of grandeur and futility. Where before the landscape pulsed with the daily procession of time, here it is open, empty, archaic, primal, vertical and poetic. From the tiny constellations of schoolrooms and hillsides we are drawn into a broader, deeper and equally elegant meditation, but built out of more complex and confident phrasing — blending in and reworking the country’s rich and intricate history with portraiture and statuary, lending some of the force of that pictorial rhetoric to her own subjects, bringing together images at the point where history and memory elide. Suddenly the arch in the neck of a stone horse recalls the smooth sweeping beauty of a jaw-line, and the straight-backed gracefulness of a young dancer turns the clock back a full century, enticing us to imagine for a moment that August Sander perhaps was here, and scribbled his name under a rock…
The Georgia photographs embrace and make common cause with vernacular imagery from albums, from roadsides and cafés, from family albums and vitrines, from newspapers and what we take to be the pictorial history of the nation. In Georgia we see adulthood, and the imagery of its ancient family histories. Colour erupts and obtrudes in the same way that portraits suddenly do, and we are brought into the ancestry of Georgia’s self-image, but also its contemporary grasp of its own possibilities. Here Vanessa moves closer still, sacrificing none of her gentleness despite her increasingly confident sense of the strange interweaving formalities of modern life and deep traditions. In sympathy with the forcefulness of these traditions, the photographs reflect traditional costume, bring us into quiet and proximate relations with her subjects in the practise of their interests and ceremonies. Moreover, the eloquence and depth of feeling in the faces of her subjects, the formal coherence between subject and scene is such that these portraits bring a sense of their subject’s world to life, and offer us proximity to their traditions in a splendid and articulate isolation.
“Georgia, like so many places with a sense of an ancient past, was a place that seemed to be in love with its own idea of self. It is a place where people seem comfortable in celebrating their good fortune at the lush beauty of the land they, by chance, inhabit. The density of texture of the forests and mountains at first sight transport you to a reality that might have been created by some alchemist’s brew. It is the same with the features of the people who occupy this place, faces ancient and distinct, somehow complete.” — Vanessa Winship
At the outset of the Georgia sequence is a portrait of a little girl, made in such a crystalline calm that it feels as though the smooth tones float beneath mercury, her eyes reflecting a canopy of invisible light. The little girl is so slight, so small that we can imagine Winship on her knees, one large smooth, bright convex orb gazing unblinkingly toward two deep black eyes of such luminous stillness that in so sombre, sad and beautiful a face they still your pulse. The encounter between this tiny young girl and a view camera quite probably much larger than herself must have seemed strange, but her resolution in front of the broad motionless lens speaks to a confidence that belies her modest stature and her youth. Her resolution is utterly fascinating – mature far beyond her years, grave, patient, unflustered and strangely peaceful. To speak of wisdom would be to belittle her, but in so many of the Georgia photographs we encounter an openness, an ease and a stillness uncharacteristic of people in so many places, even in middle age.
It could be argued that making portraits of subjects so young is a means to evade the difficulties of wrestling with an adult sense of self-image, and Vanessa herself admits to an interest in ‘looking for an expression without a mask’. However her photographs do more than marvel at an apparent absence of guile – they grasp and draw together the precocious sobriety of the young and adolescent subjects she pictures, with a landscape and a nation still locked in the throes of a struggle toward a modernity that is proper to their own history, and yet congruent with the best hopes for their future development. That so many of her young dancers seem like miniature middle-aged men is in some way proleptic, and represents a kind of beauty that has about it a bitter edge. That sobriety is mitigated but not overwhelmed by the many small traces of the deep and renewing force of poetry and romance, and yet the question of what might come remains troublingly unsettled. In those portraits made beneath the feet of two painted portraits we note the intergenerational transfer of a certain squareness of posture that suggests tradition has in no way relinquished its rights to the future.
“When I look at the faces of these icons and paintings I recognize both imagery from the East and also from the West, rich dark colours created with an understanding of the brutality of time, they are not faded. At every opportunity I am invited to experience an expression of who and what these people have decided they are. Through dance, through song, through physical agility, through stories told over heavily laden tables, shared by whoever wants to listen. Displayed with ease, with pleasure, and with grace. It is of course a kind of fantasy of sorts. And yet there is a kind of melancholia, an underbelly that almost inevitably sets itself against such exuberance. It is a place literally crumbling from the weight of such unsustainable romance.” — Vanessa Winship
To her credit, at no point and in no sense does Vanessa seek to resolve these open and troubling questions. Her photographs do not serve to assert what, on the balance of probabilities, will or should happen next. Nor do they make a claim for redress of any kind. Where they happen upon a certain fragility, inequity or neglect, her photographs manage to be accepting even of those things she may wish were otherwise, and they do this by focusing on the particular strength and beauty of her subjects, and their willingness to be seen in the the full blush of youth, at the earliest stage of their lives. Her photographs admit of her own personal affections, thank the generosity of those that have indulged her, and in the raw simplicity of that exchange give us a powerful sense of the enchantment and the sensitivity that she developed for this rarely celebrated corner of the earth.
Winship’s portraiture, or rather her wider photographic approach, evinces a faith in, and depends utterly upon a developed sense of the crucial importance of our common humanity and essential interconnectedness. Humanity here does not mean the rigid and patrician ennobling of the poor or exotic unknown, a susceptibility to which plagued the later work of Paul Strand in particular. That dogmatic humanism, as Geoff Dyer wrote, “was all the time keen to discover and represent people’s dignity. As became the case with Paul Strand, the danger of this approach is that people can be reduced to their dignity.” Winship’s work in the region has consistently evaded this danger by seeking out her subjects for brief, parenthetical moments in the midst of them living out their lives: attending a wedding, going to school, at the beginning of dance practice or wrestling. She does not merely admit but also privileges the routine of everyday life, and finds its context not in broader portrait formulations of platonic ideals, but in a consonance between the bearing of her subjects and physiognomy of their landscape. In this she avoids the perilous trap of reducing their alterity to an archetype or exoticism, and in this she simultaneously brings us into an illuminated proximity with their lives.