Sweet Nothings – Vanessa Winship

I don’t know why so few of my friends go to openings at HOST gallery in Honduras Street, (perhaps the guys from Hackney dropped by later or it didn’t seem political enough) but on reflection many of the rest are south Londoners, and Photofusion closer to their natural habitat, with anything north of the Photographers’ Gallery perhaps seeming like another country. But it would be really worth their while jumping as I did on a number 243 and making the trip in the next few weeks, because Vanessa Winship‘s ‘Sweet Nothings‘, continuing until 5 March 2009, is really London’s outstanding show at the moment and one not to miss.

Posed portraits in large format may not seem state of the art, and Winship has deliberately pared her approach to a minimum, and it is perhaps this and her remarkable young Anatolian schoolgirls that give her work its strength and a resonance from almost the entire history of photography.

©: V Winship; used with permission

There is definitely something there of the daguerreotype portrait, perhaps in the way her subjects stand facing the camera and the photographer. For these young Anatolian girls from the rural east of Turkey – as for those early subjects – the act of being photographed, delightful though Ms Winship is, is still a considerable ordeal, not to be taken lightly and one for which at times, again as in the early days, they cannot stand still long for their images to render sharply.

Particularly when photographing in school interiors (some pictures are in school yards and other outdoor locations)  with a 4×5 camera and using only available light, exposures may sometimes run into appreciable fractions of a second rather than the instantaneity we take for granted with high ISO cameras, fast apertures, and small formats. Of course the times concerned do not approach the minutes needed for the early processes.

Turkey is a country with significant ethnic minorities, the largest of which is the Kurds who live in the east of the country and across the border in neighbouring states. Since its inception the modern Turkish state has attempted to minimise ethnic differences – at first by force, when  in the early years of the twentieth century literally millions of Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians were killed to create “a Turkey for the Turks”, but more recently largely by repressive laws and policing.

The Kurds make up perhaps a fifth of the population of Turkey, mainly speaking Kurdish rather than Turkish. For many years until 1991 speaking Kurdish was an offence in Turkey, and it is still discriminated against. Government over the years have referred to them as ‘Mountain Turks’ or ‘Eastern Turks’ rather than recognise their existence as a separate ethnic group, and there are no reliable figures for their numbers. Resistance to forced assimilation has led to a violent armed rebellion with Kurds calling for a separate state of Kurdistan and government repression.

©: V Winship; used with permission

Education is utilised by the government as an important means for the assimilation of ethnic groups and great efforts have been made to increase attendance at schools, particularly by girls, who had traditionally often remained in the home and without formal education. One important aspect of the education system is the use of Turkish as the first (and possibly only) language and the language of instruction.

Going to school is a part of a process of socialisation and of indoctrination into Turkishness. The adoption of a common blue uniform is part of this and its basic form appears to be a kind of smock;  to English eyes it resembles something that might have been designed as a coverall at the time of the Arts and Crafts movement for girls engaged in cookery or domestic science.

But what is important for these images is the way that it is individualised with various embroidery and trimmings. Often these seem to included traditional motifs such as flowers although the photographs also show some evidence of a more twentieth century globalised culture.

Although looking at a single image from this series one might see parallels with the portraits of August Sander, this really brings out the virtually orthogonal nature of their intentions. While Sander was interested in establishing a typology, this work is almost entirely about individuality and how it springs out at us from the sameness of the situation, the uniform and the technical approach.

Several other photographers are mentioned in a foreword to the book ‘Sweet Nothings’ containing 45 of these images , published in the UK by Foto8  and available from HOST.  Although there are some visual similarities, for example between Winship’s pictures and a few of the images of Diane Arbus, I think the resemblance ends there – Arbus had quite a different agenda (and the same could be said for the others mentioned.) The images in the book are finely printed and I think the more intimate scale perhaps suits the work better than the exhibition wall, although it was good to see the work large.

The  exhibition prints, fine inkjet prints on Canson paper made from the large format negatives are superb, but also have a vintage feel, perhaps reminding me in some ways of the best photo-mechanical reproduction of the mid-twentieth century, although with a sharpness not then achievable. But there is something about both the sharpness and tonality which is a little different to modern silver prints whether from film or digital.

But in the end what makes these images memorable for me is the faces and body language of the girls as they face the camera, usually posing with a friend or sister, occasionally alone or in a threesome. Although few of them are in any conventional sense beautiful (and some decidedly not) they have a powerful and highly individual presence in these fine photographs.

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