Lange and Winship: women photographers at The Barbican

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This looks like a promising double exhibition; Dorothy Lange is a well known American photographer whose “Migrant Mother “ made during the poverty of the 1930’s in the U.S. has achieved iconic status while Victoria Winship is a contemporary photographer who works in black and white and won the prestigious Henri Cartier-Bresson Award in 2011. This exhibition is about documentary, black and white imagery and the role of women in photography; the latter could be an interesting topic but feminism has recently become highly politicised with the #MeToo campaign and debate is often largely rhetorical. As it turns out, there is little discussion of these underlying themes.

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The exhibition is being held at the Barbican in London, a centre that plays host to the arts; one can find theatre and music being performed here as well as seeing visual art presentations while there is also residential and office space. The exhibition though will be in the large gallery space available that provides a space for photography outside the established galleries like the Tate.

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Although having left plenty of time to reach the Barbican on time, my train arrives 15 minutes late in London while the necessary part of the Underground is not running and with The Barbican station closed, I need to make a detour and walk further. However, this results in my arriving on time but not earlier enough to see some other student work that was on show.

A number of students, 14 in all, are present with about an equal number of male and female students (though I do not do a count!). The tutor is Jayne Taylor who I know through a friend as well as through the OCA.

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I wander around the exhibition alone seeing Jayne for a brief discussion. An hour and a half is not really enough for 2 major exhibitions; as OCA students we are being asked to view only the Winship but I cannot ignore the Lange retrospective that closes tomorrow. She comes from a group of tough 20’th century American women photographers that also include Imogen Cunningham, Lee Miller and Bernice Abbott.

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The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera!” is one of a number of significant statements made by Dorothy Lange that are written large on the exhibition walls (mostly white board supported by wooden framing). Her comments on the actual act of seeing that lies at the heart of the photographic process are not political rather the subject matter was and so I find myself questioning the title of this exhibition “The politics of seeing”.

Lange says that she was not trying to achieve something, that photography of those near and dear is the beginning of discovering the other, of humanising people through photography, or revealing “the passage of time and what happens in it!”. She saw Saw photography as ripe for development and that she was just on the threshold of it

She was a craftswoman who documented major issues in America during the 20’th century. Her professional training as a portrait photographer obviously helped in this and portraiture is an important part of her work.

This exhibition is a major retrospective of her work! It really requires extended viewing which since the exhibition closes the next day won’t be possible. There is however, a good catalogue with essays yet not all the photographs from the exhibition.

Victoria Winship is the other woman photographer being exhibited in her first major exhibition. We learn that she was part of a circle that included Victor Burgin whose book Thinking Photography was seminal.

Of her many photographs on show culled from seven bodies of work, it is a diptych of trees from the series Georgia: Seeds carried by the Wind 2008-2019 that were made with a large format 4×5” camera which is what Lange also used. The details of the natural arena are are caught in a silvery light and provide welcome relief to the harrowing nature of much of Winship’s imagery in which people often appear as strange and barely human even ghostly. It is not her only tree image, there is also the den image in her most recent work “And Time Folds” as well as a colour photograph of a heavily laden apple tree. Yet the black and white trees are pristine and appear unburdened by any particular message.

While Dorothy Lange has photographed the people and political scenery of her times, her Oak Tree in a Garden, Berkeley, California 1957 reveals a shift in her work following the hardship of the Depression and the Second World War. She did not become a nature photographer yet this image shows a sensitivity towards light and tone as well as form; a building can be seen in the background.

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Over lunch, we discuss some of the exhibition but not the feminist implication. I see other avenues of interpretation such as the contrast between the modernity of Lange and the postmodernity of Winship.

We also discuss OCA matters. Google Hang Outs seem the way to go!

Barry, one of the students, has a Barbican pass and kindly allows me to enter again for a second viewing.

I start by going backwards through the Dorothy Lange exhibition and am surprised by the exhibition titled “Death of a Valley” as this is about the destruction of a valley that echoes with my own study project about an area outside the town where I live that is being redeveloped for 650 homes. This series of photographs was published by Aperture in 1960 (Lange who was a co-founder of the publisher Aperture) in a photo book that has not had much coverage and if available now carries art prices (£238 plus at present). The work refers to the Berryessa Valley and the Monticello Dam featuring images of  traditional life such as cowboys on horses, a store and petrol pump, a cemetery from where remains were removed as well as houses while bulldozing of area also burning went ahead. An interesting online article from 2015 helps to put this all into perspective.

I also manage to see one of the films about Dorothea Lange in which she gives insights into her work shortly before her death from cancer at 70 and a major retrospective of her work at MOMA in New York.

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