Looking for America

Vanessa Winship photographed by her husband George Georgiou last month

In 2011, Vanessa Winship, a British photographer who had spent the past decade living and working in the Balkans, submitted a proposal to the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris. Every two years, the foundation awards a grant to a photographer for a project that otherwise would be difficult to complete. Winship’s proposal was to take a photographic journey across America. She was fully cognisant of the legacy she was taking on; generations of photographers had followed the example of Walker Evans in the 1930s and Robert Frank in the 1950s, turning the cross-country photo essay into a genre, and the bar was set high.

It was a place, she wrote in her proposal, “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. [Now] I am drawn to discover it for myself.”

She was entering, she explained, what felt like the third phase of her photographic development. At the age of 51, her work had moved from what she described as the “classical, observational style” of her early Balkan pictures, to the “more formal, frontal and direct” approach of her recent portraits. Now she was ready “to distil the essence of those two languages … to create something new”.

In June 2011, the jury of the HCB Award, among them the photographer Martine Franck, Cartier-Bresson’s widow, who died last year, and Robert Delpire, who had published the first edition of Robert Frank’s The Americans in 1958, announced Winship as the winner. It gave her €30,000 to complete her project, which would be published and exhibited in Paris two years later. This was the first time the award, launched in 1988, was given for a completely new body of work, and it was the first time it was given to a woman.

I first met Winship in 2008, the year her book of portraits of rural schoolgirls in Eastern Anatolia was published and critically well received. She and her husband George Georgiou, who is also a photographer, had just come back to England. She was quietly spoken and chose her words slowly and carefully. London had been a shock. She kept noticing, she said, isolated people, young women especially, who looked disengaged, lost in the urban environment. Her portraits spoke of the same sensitivity and watchfulness. The schoolgirls she had photographed, most of them on the edge of puberty, faced her camera with composure. In their old-fashioned embroidered dresses with white collars, had it not been for the assortment of boots, trainers and patterned socks, they could have been portraits from a century ago. Winship takes very few frames for each portrait, she explained, sometimes only one. She would wait, camera poised, until the girls were settled and ready.

Images from Vanessa Winship’s photographic journey across America, undertaken in 2011 for the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris

In December 2010 she made a series of portraits for this magazine, of teenagers at her old school in Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire, on the south side of the estuary, at the end of the Humber Bridge. This is where she grew up, in a town famous for manufacturing bicycles, and where her father had cycled 20 miles a day.

“My father was the most healthy person ever,” she said. “To the point that I boasted about him … And then he became ill. My father, who never goes to hospitals: how could that be?” For a few weeks it wasn’t clear what was wrong. Then he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; “it killed him in three months”. The timing was cruel. “Literally, I won the prize as my father … Perhaps it’s an atomic bomb to mention it [in an interview] but it’s true and it really made a difference.”

Her father died in December 2011. She described her panic leaving for America that September – “My throat is kind of closed. What do I do?” – and one of the last times she’d talked to him, with her mother and three of her four siblings around the bed, when he had asked them “in order of seniority” to tell him what they were up to. “So my mother listed what she’d been doing, and then my sister spoke about her daughter graduating, and I wittered on about this prize, and then my brother, who is the quiet one, spoke about these birds he’d seen, because my father called himself an amateur ornithologist, so that meant something to him, and it was kind of poignant.”

In America that autumn, her brother texted her almost every week with updates on her father, and also with bird sightings.

“So the birds became a sort of …” I thought she was going to say “metaphor”. But she began again: “I had read Richard Powers’ book The Echo Maker, which is partly about sandhill cranes – ‘echo makers’ is the name native Americans give them – some of the oldest [species of] birds on earth, and they have a built-in memory, they know how to migrate. So while I was in America, I hunted for these birds, and my father and the birds and this thing about America all fitted together.” So the birds represented another kind of journey? “Yes, the birds carrying the memory of my father.”

Apart from selecting a geographical area, her approach was to let the work evolve gradually. “I work in a bit of a meandering, organic way. It feels like the only way I can begin to grapple with what’s going on around me. There is also something about a certain heightened awareness that happens when you’re in a new place, when you are emotionally exposed and vulnerable. Serendipity allows for a way to feel a personal connection.”

Her one deliberate artistic choice was that the work would move between portraits of ordinary people, chosen at random, and landscapes, and in the editing she would counterpoint the two. It was a shift she felt within herself, emotionally: “The whole of the journey [I was] oscillating between a real desire to be with people, countered by a desire to be in the wilderness, to be alone.”

When I asked if she’d encountered any hostility, she said no. “You learn that people are personable and like to talk. I’ve never found people to be problematic in terms of making a photograph. I think people need to be needed. When you ask to photograph somebody, it’s difficult, but you’re saying, ‘Something about you is interesting,’ and people like that. It’s also partly about [them] wanting to help out.”

She was not travelling alone. Her husband was with her for most of the journey. “We have kind of navigated our working space in a way that I think is quite unusual. We’ve been together for almost 30 years, we met at photography college. I never work when he works, though he quite often works when I’m working.” Because she had a very real deadline, though, he put her needs first.

“It has been a sacrifice for him,” she said, “because this would have been the perfect moment for him to do a new piece of work. [Georgiou was one of six photographers selected for the 2011 New Photography show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.] But both of us have always had this long-term idea of what we’re attempting to do, so in a way it doesn’t matter whether we do it in six months or 10 years.”

After the MoMA opening in September 2011, they flew to San Francisco and travelled through the northwest: Oregon, Washington State, Montana, Colorado and Utah, then south to California, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. On the second trip they went to the South: Georgia and Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida. On the third they crossed through Nevada, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and, finally, to New York. “I had a sense that to understand something of the nature of the place, I needed to immerse myself in its mobility,” she said. “We did cover a huge land mass, literally thousands of miles.”

And yet what you get from the photographs is an intimacy that comes from the smallness of ordinary lives set against the enormous backdrop of land and sky. There is a tension between individual portraits that suggest people trapped by circumstances and the scale and emptiness of a country that offers the illusion of escape. “I am still not sure whether the smallness of ordinary lives is reassuring or really frightening,” she said. “Ordinary doesn’t mean they’re not extraordinary.” When I asked how she’d chosen who to photograph, she said, “It’s just an instinct. 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.”

We talked about the stories of Raymond Carver, which seemed to resonate in her photographs, and the literary and photographic references she had made part of her trip. “They are points of pilgrimage.

I went to where [the photographer] Robert Adams had worked, in Colorado. I made a pilgrimage to the location of one of Robert Frank’s images, in Montana. I’d read In Cold Blood years ago, and so I visited Holcomb [in Kansas, where the murders took place that were the centre of Truman Capote’s book]. I find it necessary to go to a place, almost as if the ground’s going to tell me something. And, of course, it does. But whether I create an image in that place doesn’t matter. They are things that resonate; they are still necessary pilgrimages.”

The deadline for the award meant that she had to be ready for the show that opens at the Cartier-Bresson Foundation on Wednesday. “In a strange way, having a deadline creates something different,” she said. “It’s not better or worse, it’s different. It means that the pace you move has to be faster. Nine months is no time to understand [a country]. It’s so nuanced, it’s so complicated. I’m deeply conflicted about it. And for me it’s not finished. It’s still really, really new, and in many ways I’ve been very mute [about it] and I’m still processing what it is.”

She has produced a book of photographs that suggest a longing and a loneliness in the sweep of the landscape and the precariousness of individual lives; as if there was something uncaring about the geography in which human beings are disposable. Apart from the rhythm of alternating portraits with landscapes, there seems nothing deliberate, or definitive, about her choice of characters and locations.

“For me it was the randomness that was something really beautiful,” she said. “It has been an extraordinarily generous thing that I’ve been afforded. But I don’t feel comfortable in the States. Each time I say something, I can say exactly the opposite. I’m looking back and I’m looking forward. I can say, ‘I felt really uncomfortable,’ and then I can say, ‘I felt really comfortable’. It’s a terrible place, it’s a wonderful place. It’s all of those things … It’s a truly terrible place.

“I’ve always hated the word ‘awesome,’” she added with a small smile. “But I really understand it now. I still couldn’t bring myself to say it, but it is, awe-full. I am full of awe. It’s a hard place, actually. It’s a place where you can easily fall off the edge.”

‘Vanessa Winship: she dances on Jackson’, Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, Paris, May 15-July 28; www.henricartierbresson.org.

Her book of the same title is published by MACK; www.mackbooks.co.uk

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