The dream springs eternal. Hit the highway (preferably along fabled Route 66) and discover America. Jack Kerouac did it, so did Robert Frank. So what that was over sixty years ago … the soul of America has to be out there somewhere, right? (We hope our 2018 soul isn’t best expressed by racist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, school massacres in Parkland, Florida, or as I write, just this week toddlers ripped from their parents in Texas.) Trouble is, you head out the actual Route 66, it’s a too-full-of-its-own-myth tourist byway. You course the other main roads through the nation, they’re mostly get-out-of-the-way-of-the-Walmart-truck superhighways barely holding up all those years after they were built in the nation’s last great infrastructure push—sixty years ago.
Still, that’s an enduring portion of the American dream, that somehow even now one can light out for the country (pace Huck Finn) and discover the damn place, then bring it back in prose or photos.
And damn if British photographer Vanessa Winship didn’t pull just that off, turning up America’s soul (and the way, as with its highways, it’s crumbling) by poking mostly along the country’s back roads for her 2013 Mack photobook, She Dances on Jackson, reprinted now to go along with her first major solo exhibition, at the Barbican Art Gallery in London. The book is the product of Winship’s being the first woman awarded the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award, which allowed her the time to travel to and dig deep into America. (Just guessing here, but Frank got a Guggenheim grant for his travels; when you’re out on your pilgrimage faced with endless asphalt and long, dying afternoons in no-count small towns, it might cheer you up to think, Hey, I’ve been given prestigious money to be out here bored and stupefied trying to take enduring photos—and make sense—of America.)
Of course, grants or no grants, on any given day countless people are out roaming America looking for something, most probably going from one tourist spot or national park to the next, but many (having Kerouac or Frank or Peter Fonda lurking in their minds somewhere) are no doubt hoping to discover that deep American soul … and instead filling up Instagram with pictures of diner breakfasts … which, sorry Instagramers, as his recent huge MoMA show reminded us, Stephen Shore was doing definitively forty years back, and still is. (By the way, I proudly wear a Uniqlo T-shirt imprinted with Shore’s knife, spoon, orange peels, and daisy-adorned juice glass … a garment someone a few weeks back called the strangest T-shirt they’d ever seen.)
So as usual, it’s not the notable award that creates the impressive work, but the impressive artist who takes advantage of the financial assistance to follow her vision and ability to do the best work she can—to in Winship’s case certainly bring back the goods.
So what does Winship discover in America?
First of all, as with almost all Mack books, beautifully printed black-and-white photos, about a 50–50 blend of landscapes (mostly rural) and staged portraits of people she met along the way. The first photo after the title page is of a twisted, spiky tree on a literal bend in the road; parked below it is a long 1970s gas-guzzler. It’s an empty landscape, a bit forlorn (that endless afternoon America does so well), subtly adorned with a speck of a no-pedestrian sign. That shot’s followed by a portrait, a large, shirtless, tattooed man shot from the side. All he has on is a baggy pair of gym shorts, his perfectly curved too-many-cheeseburgers belly swelling over them. The expression on his shaved head? Determined, wistful, almost blank … indeed, there’s an intriguing blankness to many of Winship’s portraits, a challenge to us to try to figure out what the subjects are thinking; or perhaps even more, where they see themselves fitting into this new-century America. Answers … they don’t come easy.
The next photo, more spiky trees, but also a thick flock of flying-away birds. (This is the shot printed in chiaroscuro on the blood-orange cloth cover.) As one whose near favorite photobook is Fukase’s Ravens, I can’t not see an allusion here, and yet there’s little other acknowledgment of Fukase’s book, though the image two further along in Winship’s book is of a statue of an elk atop a tomb, a shot that would be at home in Lee Friedlander’s recently re-released American Monument. (Turns out it’s a tomb in New Orleans’s Greenwood Cemetery.)
The allusions in She Dances on Jackson float lightly, and don’t get in the way of the author’s own vision. Indeed, every shot is Winship’s, in a style of her own. And yet to even begin to capture America, it can’t hurt to reach back to past works that also set out to nail down the nation in photography and literature.
And nail it down Winship does. All the photos are strong, but the portraits reveal (even as they conceal) the most. After that first profile portrait mentioned above, all the other subjects face the camera … no, actually stare it down. Some are world-class shots: One of an African-American young woman, gazing resolutely into the lens from the passenger seat of a car, is crisp, powerful, and ambiguous. There’s definitely something unflinching in all Winship’s subjects, which (we hope) speaks to an indomitable American spirit. But, again, there’s also something unreadable. They don’t seem happy or sad; indeed, any emotion is unclear, even from the two Sunday-best young men, one playfully tweaking the other’s ear, or the young couple, the girl holding her boyfriend’s left hand and pinching his T-shirt, wholly ignoring the fox head and fur wrapped around the boy’s right arm.
What? Fox head and fur wrapped around his arm? You almost don’t notice it. Indeed, these strong and unrevealing portraits are in a way just there, and they anchor the book. Apart from the kid’s fox hand, it’s really in the non-portraits that the true American weirdness turns up.
The large heart shape on a stick in an empty field (with hints of Frank’s crosses on the scene of a highway accident shot from The Americans). The storage lot for presumably Mardi Gras floats, a blackface mime head fronting the most immediate one. The scatter of mushrooms on a bed of fall leaves. A highway snaking through badlands. Rows of ripped and torn cloth seats in a presumably abandoned movie theater. A tall tree stump festooned with dozens of forsaken pairs of shoes.
Winship doesn’t push weird America too hard. Really, she doesn’t seem to push anything very hard. The photos are there—just there—as is the country itself. And for all of that quiet and dispassion, the book is exceptionally strong … and pure. And kind of empty, too. And yet full of that still indomitable spirit.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what Winship found out about America at the end of her long road, though just as She Dances on Jackson leaves the countryside and hits city streets comes my favorite photo, and one that expresses the book best.
It’s a portrait of a teenage girl, loose, shoulder-length red or blonde hair hitting her shoulders, a big white chrysanthemum pinned on the left. Her lips are pronounced, perfectly-bowed Daido Moriyama lips (red as can be, I’m sure, even though all we see is black and white), with two studs piercing the lower lip a half-inch in from the fetching corners. She has on a cheap metal necklace (it’s actually a long beaded key chain), a Boston Red Sox medal hanging from it. She’s looking at the camera the way all these other souls in Winship’s book do: with a blank face, eyes in an unrattled focus on the camera, her strong spirit vivid and untrammeled.
Then there’s the script tattoo sweeping in a perfect curve below and in harmony with her neck line: “young heart, old soul.”
This is the fourth-from-last photo in the book, yet if any photo sums it up, this is it. (The book leaves us with a nearly empty one-way city street, the Stars and Stripes hanging forlornly from the Old Colony Building—another Stephen Shore–like shot in its perfect composition, only in black and white.)
Still it’s that tattooed girl I come back to. If in a way an artist’s vision comprises the choices she makes, unyielding and expressive (even in their inexpressiveness), then Winship has come up with her own strong vision of America. It’s a book of the Trump era, even as it was photographed a few years before he came to power.
Which means there’s little uplifting at the end of Winship’s long road, and yet one hopes that her dark truths about the nation may simply be truths of a certain time. That her (our) America that feels so lost and sad, gone profoundly astray, is also unyielding and unconquerable … a world of millennials willing to spike ink into their flesh visibly and forever with phrases such as Young Heart, Old Soul.
As in … kids, all of us, let’s get out there and vote.
She Dances on Jackson by Vanessa Winship can be purchased here.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.