Review of "she dances on Jackson": a book of photographs by Vanessa Winship

Jackson

First of all the title: “she dances on Jackson”. It’s written in small case letters, almost as if it’s being whispered. It’s there on the cover, though you'd be hard put to find it at first glance, discretely tucked away on the bottom right hand corner of this beautifully bound book of photographs, blending into the image, which is a picture of a tree with a flock of birds taking flight from a rust-coloured background.

Actually it sounds like a song title to me, and – I can’t help it – I've been singing Jackson by Johnny Cash and June Carter ever since I received my copy of the book.

We got married in a fever

Hotter than a pepper sprout

We been talkin ‘bout Jackson

Ever since the fire went out

Oh I’m going to Jackson

I’m going to mess around

Yes I’m going to Jackson

Look out Jackson town.

Winship explains the title at the end of the book. It involves an incident on Jackson subway, a girl who dances to a busker on the platform, who gets on the train with her mother, sitting opposite the photographer for their journey, and who then gets off at the same station.

It’s an odd little story as a justification for the title of the book as there doesn't appear to be any actual photograph of the incident, nor even a photograph of the protagonists, although they do exchange a few words at the end.

“That’s a beautiful camera,” says the girl, before getting into a car and being driven away.

There is something wistful in the story, of a lost moment in time, of a photograph untaken, as if, perhaps, it is commemorative of all the other photographs that must have passed her by as her and her husband, George Georgiou, traversed this epic landscape on their pilgrimage of discovery to find the real and living America behind the Hollywood fiction that lives inside of everyone’s head.

Glamour

The book takes the form of a dialogue between landscape and individual. Photographs of landscapes are interspersed with photographs of people. The landscapes are spaciously empty, giving an impression of vast distances and undiscovered horizons. The people are poised in their own smaller landscapes, aware of their familiarity with each other and with the world around them. These are people who don’t travel much, you feel. They are comfortable in their own private worlds. And yet the impression you get is of those vast landscapes looking out from the eyes of the people.

It’s like one of those flip card animations we used to do as kids. You run several pictures together to give an impression of movement. By turning the pages of this book you move from intimacy to emptiness and back again; and then its as if the pictures are moving together into a seamless whole, as if the landscapes are informing the individuals, as if they are present in their lives, like the commentary of the unconscious as it appears in our dreams, like a motivation for our actions which we didn’t even know we had.

The landscapes take two forms. They are either natural landscapes, of trees and hills and distances; or urban landscapes, of tarmac and decay. Both appear empty, solemn. But while one is rich and brimming with life, the other is as dry as any desert, as bleak as any mountain, as empty as any soul.

Occasionally words turn up in the photographs. They appear on tee-shirts and belt buckles, on buildings and on hoardings, carved into trees and etched on people’s skin. It is in the realm of words that irony exists. Thus the word COMMUNITY stretches across what looks like a decaying warehouse. Perhaps it is a cinema. Prior to that we had a shot inside a cinema: rows of seats lined up in front of the now dead screen, also decaying. The Hollywood Dream Factory no longer has an outlet in this town. There is no community in this community. The word is a betrayal of its own meaning.

In another there’s a shop sign with the words Glitter & Glamour over a row of boarded up shops, with a piece of Soviet-style, brutalist architecture glowering behind. You remember that this kind of functionally minimalist building was universal in the cold war era, even in the glitzy, glamorous US of A. The word “glamour” refers to an illusion. It is a kind of spell which the fairy-folk cast over your eyes to make you see worthless things as of value. When the spell is broken the scales fall off your eyes and you see the world as it really is once more.

Trees

Often the natural landscapes frame an item or object of our human world. So there’s a car parked by a tree. Some bleak expanse of tarmac. A house. A bridge. A fence. A washing line. A memorial shaped like a heart. Small items of discarded humanity dwarfed by the vast landscapes around them. Tiny obsolescences in a world of epic grandeur. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the United States itself, for the state of the States at this present time. Those bleak scenes of urban devastation won’t last, you feel. One day, maybe, nature will reclaim its place at the heart of our human world again.

The other thread that runs through the pictures are the trees. There are more trees than people in this book. They are there at regular intervals throughout its pages, as if giving commentary to the narrative: from the shoddy domesticity of the apple tree early on in the series, already shedding its fruit, to the vast, archaic swamp tree towards the end, like some throwback out of the depths of time, overarching scenes of comfortable domesticity, with a tyre swing dangling from its gnarled branches to remind us of how small we are in comparison, how short-lived and insignificant. The trees perhaps represent something deep-rooted in the lives of the human beings who populate this story. Something connected to the earth. Something wise and old. Something elemental. Something greater than the human.

One photograph shows words carved into the aerial roots of a Banyan Tree. Earth is Home, it says, amongst all the signatures and scribbles. It could be the motto for the book.

Absence

The trick of photography is that it creates an illusion of absence. The person who is missing is the one taking the photograph. The use of the SLR in most modern photography means that the photographer’s face is hidden. Thus the person being photographed is looking at a camera lens, not at a human being. In Winship’s case, she does her portrait work with a large format camera. The process is long-drawn out and complex, involving a lot of faffing about under a cloak, but in the end the subject is looking at Vanessa Winship, not at a camera. She brings her face out from under the cloak, she smiles encouragingly, and then takes the photograph. Thus the pictures show a real human interaction: a face meeting a face. It is more intimate than most photography, more revealing, more generous to the spirit, more expressive as an art form.

The remarkable capacity Winship has as an artist, is her ability to convey feeling out of what might otherwise be seen as a random collection of photographs. The photographs have a mood. They say something to us. More than anything, you feel, there is something autobiographical in the work, as if, by creating these photographs for us, of a far-off and exotic landscape, she is, at the same time, telling us something about herself. Vanessa Winship occupies these pictures as surely as any of the people whose images emerge from these pages. She is there, reflected in their faces, in the subjects she chooses, in the narrative she conveys.

There is one photograph in particular which caught my attention. It is of a young woman with a flower in her hair, piercings through her lips and various tattoos. Her face is impassive but her eyes look wise and sad at the same time. Lost and defiant. She has a tattoo around her neck, like a necklace: “young heart, old soul,” it says.

I always imagine, looking at Vanessa Winship’s work, that, like Alfred Hitchcock's signature appearances in his movies, one photograph in any collection will represent the artist herself. In this case, I think, this is the one.

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