she dances on Jackson

Photographs by Vanessa Winship 
Printed and embossed linen hardcover,
24 cm x 27 cm, 144 pages, 64 tritone plates
MACK, 2013

Reviewed by Leo Hsu

Issue 53

The photographs in Vanessa Winship’s she dances on Jackson exhibit an ease even as they hum quietly with their own tensions. she dances on Jackson presents large format photographs that Winship made on three trips across the West, South and Midwest of the United States as the 2011 recipient of the Henri Cartier-Bresson award that funded her project. The images are beautiful and emotionally suggestive, and well-presented. Winship is a gifted photographer and this book puts her abilities in the service of an ambitious poetic narrative.

Large format portraiture tends to emphasize the connection between subject and photographer, the subject’s holding still instilling and projecting self-awareness. Winship’s portraits are examples of this par excellence: the strangers who pose for her, mostly young, encountered on the streets of American cities and towns, seem to emerge from their environments to meet us. They present themselves with an almost beatific calm, their interior complexity at once evident and unknowable. In one of the most powerful images in the book, two teenagers hold hands, their bodies leaning into one another. With her other hand, the girl holds onto the boys shirt; the boy’s other hand is wrapped inside a fox fur. Their expressions betray a combination of uncertainty and serenity.

There’s a similar effect in Winship’s photographs of landscapes of circumstance. The landscapes are unpeopled, but marked by curious interventions. A tree is covered with shoes. Deer present a recurring motif, as do empty fields and gnarled trees. Evocative and repeating symbols are connected through style and visual affinity rather than explication.

The book glides along gently and steadily, landscapes and portraits producing a rhythm of subjects and compositions that roughly begins in nature, and meanders, introducing us to a series of people and places, locations unidentified. The end of the book is startling; after all of the grace, Winship leaves us with a series of the least hospitable images in the book, terrain that is desolate and familiar.

she dances on Jackson follows in the tradition of photobooks exploring America by roadtrip, the best known and arguably most important being Robert Frank’s The Americans (Robert Delpire, who published The Americans, was among the HCB jurors). Although Winship’s steady, poised photography diverges formally from Frank’s voracious assessments in nearly every way, her aim appears to be similar to his: a kind of sociological analysis as argued through photographic aesthetics. Like The Americans, she dances on Jackson is a bittersweet encounter with America at ground level, visible evidence of how power’s capillary effects form the landscape inhabited by people with a limited amount of individual political power. Winship’s portrait of America, like Frank’s, is not a systematic argument, but an aesthetic one that pursues a kind of truth about the American condition through a persistent act of looking.

And like Frank, and also notably like Robert Adams, whose influence is visible here as well, she dances on Jackson is a portrait that is at once critical and romantic, recognizing sorrowful landscapes while simultaneously noting tiny graceful gestures. Familiar symbols are deployed: a tire swing; a flag hanging from a classically modern office building; statues and telephone wires; streets and buildings that have exceeded their expected lifespans.

This is where things settle, Winship’s pictures seem to say: this is how things shook out. The land and people in Winship’s photographs are in many ways the descendants of Frank’s subjects, and she dances on Jackson is a response to the questions that Frank asked more than fifty years ago about where America really lives, about race, about class, about the quiet pressures that the material and symbols we create place on us, all the while appreciating the ways that we live within those trappings.

The title comes from the short essay by Winship that closes the book, reminiscent of Michael Murphy’s Unphotographable or Will Steacy’s Photographs Not Taken. Winship describes a fleeting encounter on the Chicago MTA in which she observes a young girl with her mother, moving naturally through her surroundings, dancing to a band in the station, and eventually acknowledging Winship. It’s a nice, understated way to underscore Winship’s subjectivity, and her desire to celebrate life where she finds it.

All images © Vanessa Winship, courtesy of MACK

Leo Hsu is a photographer, writer and photography instructor, based in Pittsburgh, PA.
Contact Leo here

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All images © Vanessa Winship, courtesy of MACK