A study of winter grounds Vanessa Winship’s latest exhibition and book

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Reflections on absence, agency, and change weave through Winship’s quiet, observational images

“I seem to be asked to go to places in the winter,” says Vanessa Winship, reflecting on the works collected in her new exhibition, The Seasoncurrently on view at Huxley-Parlour, and in her new book, SnowThe images, which span seven winters and five countries, are delicate, muted: frost clinging to gathered bracken, the quivering paleness of ice at a lake’s edge. They are the product of seven years of creation — a period encompassing international political upheaval, increasing climate disaster, and two years of a pandemic.

Winship’s vision of winter, however, is not harsh or unforgiving. Speaking to me on Zoom, she invokes Breughel’s winter scenes: the benign hush of his skies, ice-skating figures scattered underneath. “Winter isn’t negative,” she says. “We have to have winter. We have to have dormancy. We have to tighten our belts.”

The body of work that became Snow began as a commission. A magazine sent Winship to Ohio, US, to search for the Amish. “I didn’t feel that I got what the magazine needed,” she says. I decided to return — in the same weather conditions, like a detective, to see if I could figure out what was disconcerting me,” she remembers. “I went back to Ohio alone, attempting to somehow comprehend this feeling I had about the landscape.”

Volcanic Landscape In the footsteps of Juan Goytisolo, Nijar and Carboneras. Cabo de Gata National Park, Almeria, Spain. January 2014. Image courtesy Vanessa Winship and Huxley-Parlour.

Snow, published by Deadbeat Club, is a slim, soft book. Its photographs — both colour and black-and-white — mostly depict landscapes (natural and urban/suburban), trees, a few animals, and — in a section printed on rougher, lighter paper stock — groups of Amish people and their horses. Scattered amongst Winship’s customary monochrome, the colour photographs suggest a kind of thawing, quiet blooms emerging from the frost.

A short story written by Jem Poster, an old friend of Winship, is interwoven through the image narrative. “I have become more and more interested in words and pictures, how they can work together, and how they can move a conversation. How fiction can play a role,” says Winship. Having agreed to collaborate, she sent Poster her images, and he wrote the story — titled Ice — as a response.

Horse. Ohio, US. Feb 2020. Image courtesy Vanessa Winship and Huxley-Parlour.

“I had no idea what he was going to write,” Winship says. “It felt quite important that I didn’t, in any way, influence what he wrote.” The story is written from the perspective of a photographer, Anna Markham, and describes her encounter with a potential subject on commission in a snowy American outback. Winship’s images enrich the story’s sense of place, anchoring us in the chilled remoteness, the tattered Confederate flags, the roads covered by a treacherous sheet of ice. It’s a story with many layers, speaking of art’s inclination towards remembrance, the precarity of the human contract, the desire for recognition. The relationship between the photographer and her subject seems to be the animating thrust, although — as Winship reminds me — “Anna is very different to Vanessa Winship”.

Arriving unannounced at the rural workshop of a sculptor, the photographer has a clear directive — to photograph a series of local craftsmen for a book and exhibition. She arrives harried, conscious of the fading light and keen for her subjects to agree quickly. Brody, the sculptor she encounters, is taken aback and resistant, but she promises that his image will be seen in prestigious galleries if he’ll agree to the sitting. He reluctantly relents, wanting first to show Markham some of his work.

Most thoughtful photographers reading the story will not find Markham a sympathetic character. She is condescending: judgmental of both Brody’s work and his home. Markham is also manipulative — impatiently convincing Brody to sit for her on the promise of an audience for his sculpture, despite knowing “there’d be no interest in his kind of work in any of the circles [she moves] in”. The coarse Brody, a counterpoint to her art-world refinement, gives voice to the archetypal idea of the exploited subject when he chastens her. “‘Seems to me,’ he says sharply, ‘this is a one-sided deal. It’s all you, isn’t it? You turning up on my doorstep, wanting my time, wanting a piece of me for your show. How about you give me something in return?’”

Light on Pebble. Water-stone, West Coast, England. 18 November 2019. Image courtesy Vanessa Winship and Huxley-Parlour.

It’s possible to read Poster’s story as a dramatisation of many of the ethical questions surrounding contemporary portraiture, especially given the absence of portraits in Snow. The decision not to include portraits, Winship says, was a response to the increasingly intense pitch of these conversations. “I’m very happy to take a sideways step,” she says. “I’m not saying a step back; I’m saying a return to some more observational work.”

Text can also serve to portray people. “What writing does, what novels do, is allow us to enter the lives of others,” Winship says. “It teaches us empathy. So within literature, it’s perfectly acceptable to put yourself into the shoes of another, because to understand and to imagine another life, another person — that’s what fiction does. We learn about the world in fiction in a way that we’re beginning to be forbidden to in photography.”

Markham seems like a kind of shadow self, her approach the antithesis of the embodied, engaged portraiture for which Winship is known. Where Anna is glad to flee the sculptor, dismissing the encounter as a “wasted afternoon”, Winship approaches her work with a reverent seriousness. “I’ve invested everything in my life in photography,” she says. “My whole life has been spent listening and being part of a discourse, and having witnessed what I have witnessed in the world.” Listening, as Markham seems disinclined to do. “I’ve seen people dying, I’ve been to funerals, I have been to weddings, I have been to many different religious ceremonies and rituals,” says Winship. “It has to be a calling.”

While working on Snow Winship did, of course, encounter people. For a time, she thought that perhaps she would write about these encounters herself, that they might constitute the book’s eventual text. “They were extraordinary,” she tells me. “And in a certain way, a lot of it was about loneliness. Deep yearning and a deep, deep need and desire to speak. Strangely, a camera affords that.” Here is an argument for portraiture at a moment when the questions around it are vexed: that it is a way of allowing people to tell their stories. Not necessarily to the viewer, but during the actual encounter with a photographer like Winship. The photograph is the means to that end. The act that facilitates the exchange, as well as being its record.

Worker’s Shed, Ohio, US. 16 February 2020. Image courtesy Vanessa Winship and Huxley-Parlour.

To my mind, Snow is a book defined by its absences: the leafless branches and the frozen lakes; the quiet, emptied suburban landscapes; the not-Vanessa Winship at the centre of the text, failing to take the portraits she was sent to take. But this absence is not pessimistic, despite our associations with the word. It is an absence in the sense that the qualities of mystery and humility both imply. It has, perhaps, a melancholy timbre, a fragility, a snowdrift’s silence. But, it is also a space open to the thing, or many things, that will fill it.

Winter is a kind of absence, and it is also an essential part of a continuous cycle. “Seeds are put to harden before they’re planted,” Winship reminds me. This period, for the world, could be a kind of hardening that will prepare us for the green shoots of change to emerge. In this way, Winship’s winter work reflects the world as it is now, but not as a turning away or a refusal. “I think it is a time to wait for spring,” she says. “And the spring will come again.”

The Season is on show at Huxley-Parlour, London, until 14 April 2022. Snow is published by DeadBeat Club.

Alice Zoo

Alice Zoo is a photographer and writer based in London. She is interested in the processes by which people construct meaning for themselves, often focussing on its expression in ritual, celebration, and recounted memory. Her work has been exhibited in public institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Photographic Society, and Royal Albert Hall, and published in British Journal of Photography, FT Weekend Magazine, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.