After a year-long postponement due to the pandemic, we revisit our interview with the photographers ahead of the event opening this weekend
When Vanessa Winship and Phoebe Kiely arrive and take off their coats, it becomes apparent they’re wearing strikingly similar clothes. Winship was born in 1960 and is a well-established photographer with exhibitions at the Fundacion Mapfre, the Barbican and Rencontres d’Arles, plus an HCB Award; Kiely was born in 1991 and is still starting out (albeit very successfully – she’s already published a book with Mack and was one of BJP’s Ones To Watch in 2018). Winship has long, grey hair; Kiely has a dark buzzcut.
Today they’re both wearing reddish-purple dresses with dark T-shirts underneath. It’s not their only affinity. Long after they first got in touch they realised they’re both from Lincolnshire; Winship, who came across Kiely’s photography when she “sniffed out” her prints in the Mack offices, says she feels close to her work, adding, “It’s to do with a feeling”.
Asked to pick out an interesting new photographer by The Observer in October 2018, Winship recommended Kiely; shortly before the article was published, both women were commissioned to take photographs on Cumbria’s west coast. “I know Loren found that a real coincidence,” smiles Kiely.
Loren is Loren Slater, a filmmaker who in 2001 co-founded what’s now Signal Film and Media with Kerry Kolbe. Slater and Kolbe transformed a derelict Victorian building in Barrow-in-Furness into a creative media centre, Cooke’s Studios, which opened in 2011;
in 2017 they launched the Lost Stations project, commissioning Felicity Hammond, among others, to make new work in the area. Now Signal has set up the West Coast Photo Festival, a new event featuring work by Winship, Kiely, Mishka Henner, Marie Smith, The Caravan Gallery – a group show by local photographers who have documented the west coast, including Katrin Joost, Henry Iddon, and John Darwell – and a retrospective of work shot in the area from the early 20th century to the present day.
The west coast is the industrial counterpart to Cumbria’s more celebrated and picturesque Lake District. Both Winship and Kiely made trips to the area in autumn 2019, Winship for a couple of months in total and Kiely for three weeks, Winship starting slightly earlier “at a time when rosehips were just becoming rosehips and brambles were out”. They’re showing their work alongside each other in Cooke’s Studios, and the images they’ve shot share their similarities – though as Winship says, it’s more a shared feeling than aesthetic.
Both shoot in black-and-white and have featured unpeopled shots in their series; Winship’s images take more of an overview though, while Kiely’s focus in on near-abstract details. They hadn’t seen each other’s work when we spoke and didn’t intend to do so, hoping to leave it “a fantastic surprise”, as Winship puts it, when they start installing their prints. Even so, Kiely says Winship’s work in the area influenced her.
“It’s extraordinary what people will tell you, without knowing who you are.”
“When I first got there, Loren and I went for a drive, and she mentioned one of Vanessa’s images had stuck in her head, a shot of a kind of crack to the horizon,” says Kiely. “I still haven’t seen that image, but what I imagined it to be stayed with me. Then, in Cumbria for the first time, the people I was staying with took me for a drive and, after going through woods and onto a beach, I saw a crack on the beach. I saw that scene, that frame, that image in my head – and that’s the image that Signal have used for [their marketing], which I love.”
This story sums up another affinity between the photographers, because a further thing they have in common is a calm, unhurried demeanour, a willingness to sit and listen that seemingly encourages others to speak.
“It’s extraordinary what people will tell you, without knowing who you are,” remarks Winship. Kiely says that on her first day in Cumbria, she had been looking at a gravestone and reading that the woman interred was the wife of someone called Roy, when Roy sat down next to her. He introduced himself and told her about their children. “It was an interesting introduction to the area,” she says. “I didn’t feel I could say, ‘Can you sit there while I take your portrait?’ but I took a picture of him walking away. I haven’t used it – it was just for me, because I almost wanted proof that the moment had existed.”
“I went to Barrow Island on a Sunday and I couldn’t even see lights on in the houses. The first living thing I saw was a cat.”
It’s a receptiveness that seems almost uncanny – and the marketing for the festival picks out the “links and coincidences” that piece together Winship’s work on the west coast. But this feeling of a second sense became only too real for Winship during the project, when she fell seriously ill with a gallstone while working on it. “Just before I knew about it, I’d been visiting the Bowder Stone [near Keswick in the Lake District],” she says. “It’s a glacial erratic, a huge and very beautiful stone.”
Winship found out about the Bowder Stone by looking through The Sankey Photographic Archive, a collection of images by a father-and-son duo who documented Barrow and Cumbria for over 70 years to make postcards. Signal won National Lottery funding to develop the archive in 2018, allowing them to digitise and create events based on it; the postcards show the area back when it was a booming industrial hub of ports and shipbuilding. The decline of these industries hit the west coast hard, and it’s now one of the UK’s most deprived areas; it’s also one of England’s least populated places, and both Winship and Kiely found it eerily quiet.
“I went to Barrow Island on a Sunday and I couldn’t even see lights on in the houses,” says Kiely. “The first living thing I saw was a cat.” “You really get a sense of how isolated it is,” adds Winship. “All the roads are regional ones, and the trains are sporadic. A number of the stations have gone, disappeared along with the industry. People say that the only reason the train still exists is because of Sellafield.”
Sellafield is a moot point, because while the old industry might have declined, a new one has sprung up – one that favours isolation. Sellafield is a nuclear power plant just up the coast from Barrow-in-Furness, next to Sellafield there’s another plant called Calder Hall, and there’s another just north called Cavendish.
Barrow, meanwhile, is home to BAE Systems, which specialises in building nuclear submarines, including ones capable of nuclear attack. In her commission for Signal, Felicity Hammond made an installation that looked at the effect of the nuclear industry and its waste on the region; the west coast is, as Winship puts it, a place of “light and shade and many, many layers, a place of great fragility and also of great resilience”.
Investigating these layers, Winship visited a local newspaper archive, now sadly in decline along with the local papers. She also went hiking with those from Signal. “What I enjoyed doing was walking with people,” she says. “I’d say, ‘Maybe take me somewhere that meant something to you when you were a kid’, so we’d walk and I’d hear what people say and feel about a place, hear it from the perspective of someone who has lived there and has a relationship with it – whether it’s a good or a bad one. But while I enjoyed walking, when I’m with people I’m in the moment with them. For me [to take photographs], I’d retrace, go back. I went back to all of the places I went to with other people, so I could go alone or sometimes with George [Georgiou, the photographer] because he’s my partner of 35 years and because we have a working relationship, so we don’t need to be talking.”
Ultimately, though both Winship and Kiely were open to influences, and to hearing about the area from others, in the end they both sought out this solitude – this space in which they could literally see for themselves. Kiely “cut off” her family when they tried to discuss the west coast with her, she says, preferring not to hear about the area before she went. And when she did go to visit for herself, she found it was often different to the hearsay.
“One friend described it as grey, but I don’t think I saw it as grey,” she says. “The day I got there it was awful, then the next day it was the brightest sunshine I’ve ever seen. The weather there is so changeable – they’ll say something on the forecast, then it won’t be like that at all.”
Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy