Artists love to claim themselves as outsiders and outliers, rebels and nonconformists. Very few actually are, because very few are willing to make the sacrifices that come with living that kind of life. But Vanessa Winship, a 58-year-old photographer who, after spending much of her career on the margins of the industry before being granted a major retrospective at The Barbican, can truly make that claim.
"Winship is a genuine artist, because she has lived that life," says Michael Mack, founder of MACK Books, which published a number of Winship’s photobooks, including the seminal She Dances on Jackson, when few other people had even heard of her. "She has lived the life of someone devoted to her work, and she has done what’s necessary to create that work without concern for income streams or the marketplace. A lot of people in the art world just focus on the art fairs and the marketplace. She’s always focused on the work."
I first met Winship while interviewing her long-term partner, George Georgiou, also a photographer. After many years living a semi-nomadic life in "countries that are never in the news", they had returned to live in an old, converted hotel in the seaside town of Folkestone, so as to spend more time with their granddaughter.
The pair met on a photography course in London at the age of 24. Winship was one of four siblings, and grew up in a Lincolnshire market town. London was pretty different from a childhood spent in Barton-upon-Humber, a small fishing town near the Humber Bridge, and she didn’t know where she fitted in.
Georgiou, on the other hand, was loud and brash, a native Londoner of Cypriot descent who seemed to know everything about the city. They both had partners at the time, but they coupled up and have spent almost every day together since.
When the pair were still in their thirties, they bought a rundown property cheaply via an inheritance. Rather than settle down, do the house up and chase the London art scene, as so many of us would, they made a life-changing decision. They sold up and used the money to fund the beginnings of a journey that lasted for the best part of the next three decades, and continues still.
Georgiou and Winship packed most of their belongings into a car and made their way through Europe and into Eurasia, just after the Iron Curtain had lifted, settling eventually in Belgrade, Serbia. From there, they went on to live in Greece and Turkey, Albania, Kosovo, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, Ukraine and Georgia.
“It’s about being with someone you’ve grown up with of course, and photography has been part of that growing,” Winship says of her relationship with Georgiou. “We’re very different in many ways, but I believe we share many common concerns even if the focus is expressed differently. Having the support of someone else to keep you going when the other one might be down, has probably sustained our working life, and I guess especially given that it’s been one in which we’ve pretty much initiated everything off our own backs most of the time. It’s about being with someone you love and trust implicitly, who understands your way of thinking and engages in a constant dialogue and I can’t imagine anything better than that.”
In each country, they would create – quite separately – major bodies of work. Working in monochrome, using analogue film cameras processed in a dark room, Winship focused on the everyday experience of young women in these emergent, ancient and complex cultures. Her posed portraits feel very much like a private exchange between subject and artist, as if an unsaid understanding has occurred the moment before she has taken the picture.
Alona Pardo curated the Barbican retrospective, as well as the Dorothea Lange retrospective that will take place alongside Winship’s show. “Winship and Lange both look at social exclusion, geopolitical exclusion and cultural gender inequalities through their camera,” Pardo tells Refinery29.“Winship doesn’t ultimately believe in the power of photography to affect change, and that was an underlying premise of Lange’s. But they’re both exquisite portrait photographers, whom have a way of honing in on the individual, but also carefully exploring the context in which their subjects find themselves.”
"Her portraiture is quiet, it’s unforced and it’s incredibly sensitive," Mack says. "She’s always largely focused on young women from countries and situations that tend to be off the traditional photographic map. Her portraits are born of the real world, and they capture quotidian moments rather than spectacular moments. Over many years, she has built up the most extraordinary body of work."
But what of money and fame? How did they fund such a lifestyle, and who saw the work? "Money? I pull pints and sell ice cream," Winship once said during an interview with the British Journal of Photography. "We’re hugely in debt and have made massive financial sacrifices for our work," Georgiou said in another interview with the same publication. "We don’t own anything, but we have no fears for the future.”
By that same token, Winship has never chased exposure. And, subsequently, she has never really gained any. Winship has given startlingly few interviews, garnered very few column inches. She took photographs for the sake of it, for her own relationship to it. She worked in her own way and for her own purposes, in almost total privacy.
Winship has never chased exposure. And, subsequently, she has never really gained any.
“Having to put yourself ‘out there’ can begin to feel like a full time job, one tied in with celebrity in a certain way which I’m not comfortable with,” Winship says. “In the end, my interest is in making work and trying to grapple with understanding what’s going on in the world.”
Yet there may be something more to it than her own adversity to the spotlight. ”I’m sad to say there are a number of women of Vanessa’s age working in photography who haven’t, throughout their careers, received the attention they deserve," Mack says. "While their male counterparts, many of whom are making comparable work in the same milieu, haven’t struggled for attention."
Winship, Mack says, "isn’t pushy, she isn’t out there. In fact, she isn’t that interested in engaging with the art world’s ideas of success. It’s meant she’s existed under the radar for a long time." That began to change in 2011. Winship submitted a proposal to the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation and was given €30,000 to fund a new project. In its 23rd year, this was the first time the grant had been awarded to a woman.
Winship’s proposal was to drive across America, taking photographs along the way, in the time-honoured tradition of Walker Evans, Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank.
In her proposal, she wrote of America as a place "that, like a famous personality, we all think we know, and as a result treat with a certain familiarity, from exposure to American film, literature and popular culture. I carry with me a spectrum of second-hand experiences, sometimes facts, sometimes little fictions. I am drawn to discover it for myself.”
Just before they left for the States in September of that year, Vanessa’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The last time she saw him, her brother told their father – a keen birdwatcher – about the birds he had spotted on the banks of the Humber.
“My father had been an amateur ornithologist, and over the course of the year after my father died my brother would send me messages about the birds he’d seen,” Winship says. “He still does to this day, and they’re mostly around the spot where my fathers ashes are scattered on the banks of the Humber.”
Soon after, Winship and Georgiou flew to America. They hired a car and slept in motels, and he drove her the whole way – Georgiou calls himself Parker, after the Thunderbirds' character who dutifully drives Lady Penelope wherever she pleases. Georgiou recounted how Winship would see a flock of birds high up in the trees and he would slam on the brakes, reverse, edge forward, then turn a little in the road, so she could gain the perfect angle. Or they would stop and walk from the road with her tripod in tow to find people, animals and natural vistas far from the thoroughfares. Birds became a recurrent subject.
“I had been introduced to Richard Powers’ novel The Echo Maker, which explores the lives of an ancient bird known as Sand-Hill Cranes, or Echo Makers, because of the sound they make when communicating with one another, and whom have incredible inbuilt memories during their migratory paths. Throughout the book, he uses them as a kind of metaphor to speak about contemporary America. So the birds, for me, are both a memory of my father and my search for America.” The resulting work, which she titled She Dances on Jackson, a mix of landscapes, wildlife shots, portraits and studies of the built environment, is comparable to any photographic study of America.
Winship, assisted by Georgiou and the Barbican team, have spent the last week holed up at The Barbican, printing and framing and hanging each photograph for And Time Folds, which will encompass photographs from each chapter of their life together. The exhibition is testament to two people who fell in love and found a way to support each other’s vision throughout anything life threw at them. And it’s testament to a woman who, in her own quiet, humble and intimate way, has become one of the greatest living photographers, anywhere in the world.
Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds is on show at Barbican Art Gallery, London, from 22nd June – 2nd September 2018.