Two floors separate the black and white photographs of Dorothea Lange and Vanessa Winship. Two personalities, two different epochs, yet similarities rejoin the works of these two mastodons.
The Barbican has displayed the retrospective of both American and English photographers on two levels, Lange on the ground and Winship on the first, suggesting that the viewers enter each of the creative worlds with a fresh pair of eyes and a new set of emotions.
Lange’s characters appear devoid of artifice. Most of the time, the sharecroppers or displaced farm families and migrant workers, are shot without the camera directed towards them, allowing them to be in their natural habitat without being disturbed.
This is seemingly Lange’s aim who has usually been commissioned to take such photographs. Although she accomplishes her original duty as a reporter, she diverts from her task when taking pictures for the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration and later for the War Relocation Authority after the attack on Pearl Harbour by revealing more than she was supposed to.
On both assignments, she immortalises the condition of struggling families in a quest for financial and moral support and the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans from the West coast.
The exhibition regroups a multitude of photographs documenting America’s Great Depression in the 1930’s. Amongst them the iconic Migrant Mother, the portrait of Florence Owens Thompson captured with her three children under the tent serving as their home. This is the photographer’s most popular oeuvre and if the emotions emerging from the eyes of a mother acting as a pillar for her children is poignant, the rest of her not-so-known works are just as moving as this world-wide masterpiece.
The singular individuals shot unexpectedly by Lange seem to come to life on the black and white mat surface. Times, locations, and situations are instantly forgotten when staring at each one. Oddly, they become familiar, as if staring into the faces of our ancestors, reminiscent of older memories forming part of our lives, ingrained in our past in some strange manner. They have lived and endured sacrifices, permitting us life and function as human beings, to be present in this moment when looking back on them. Their hardship instantly pierces the paper to meld with our guilt and empathy. Lange during all these years, has been the conveyor of this possible interaction.
In a short 24-hour film of her life projected within the exhibition, she mentions that her work reflects the variety of human lives she has encountered spanning her entire career rather than her personal outlook. Following that statement, Politics of Seeing doesn’t fail to demonstrate her endless intentions to record environmental politics, denouncing America’s post war society evolution and social inequalities.
Winship’s photographs are the testimony of a modern world tolerating and sustaining the politics and aftermath of conflicts in Eastern European countries. Each room is a series which has been methodically archived under a title and specific aim. Together with her partner George Georgiou, her life is dedicated to travelling and documenting her experiences flirting with the borders of the Balkans, Istanbul, Georgia, Russia or Ukraine to name a few.
If her work appears fragile, it is imbued with severity. She captures a tenacious and unapologetic population in precarious environments. Forced to undergo a certain type of regimen at the border of their own countries where conflict remains, the individuals speak to the viewer with determination and pride through fierce stares. At the heart of Winship’s work, landscapes act as the symbol of frontiers’ ephemeral functions. On each side of a set delimitation, a population is forced to despise the other camp.
Her focus is the impact of conflicts and a population’s desire to rebuild and survive. The faces and attitude of the individuals at the heart of the shots set in a background of ruin and insecurity contrasts and shines.
Winship, after becoming the first female photographer to win the coveted Henri Cartier-Bresson Award in 2011, produces She Dances on Jackson, a series shot in the USA during the voting season leading to Obama’s election. Once again, her focal point is the people and the atmosphere reigning in smaller towns. This series remains in black and white, expressing the turmoil and hidden hope of a country expecting redemption.
Politics of Seeing and And Time Folds is an overwhelming voyage through history and time recounted through the eyes of individuals as subject matters whom I have never met yet to whom I feel so close. I recognise landscapes which I could have inhabited, and faces I could have encountered.
The black and white component reduces the noise in each image and submerges me in what really matters in the eye of the photographer: palpable emotions. Abrupt yet poetic, the works of both Lange and Winship transmit essential values: -inequality, war, poverty, negligence, deportation, and injustice, allowing me to dive into the purpose of their fight.
In this moment, while I glance at each portrait, each landscape, each set of eyes peering towards the camera, I realise that nothing has really changed since then. Somewhere, somehow, a population is being treated the same way just as in the photographs.
Politics of Seeing by Dorothea Lange and And Time Folds by Vanessa Winship at Barbican (22 June – 2 September 2018)