In the round: An interview with Joanna Vestey
Joanna Vestey’s practice and love of photography has resulted in the 25-year long development of a fascinating collection of photographic prints. While she acquired them at different times, and they are from many different artists and genres, she came to realise there is a commonality about them. Joanna’s collection Circles, will be on display as part of Photo Oxford. Karen David caught up with Joanna to ask how she built the collection and what it means to be part of Oxford’s photography scene.
Joanna Vestey’s photography collection began when, starting out as a photographer, she began to acquire photographs she liked. “When I was in my early 20’s, I saved a bit of money as I began working. A lot of photography was relatively financially accessible in those days, and you could buy great prints for a couple of hundred pounds. So I went off to a gallery in London and bought a print which I loved.
“It was very much a way into collecting as at that age I’d certainly never have been able to collect art, and photography hadn’t really been discovered in the way it has now. So gradually over the years I’d do a job, then buy a print.
“I didn’t set off to collect circles at all. I just bought things I really liked and over time, as I lived with them on the wall, the recurring form of the circle seemed to be a unifying theme. What I liked was that the collection wasn't particularly confined to any genre, era or category of photo. There was just this very broad, slightly tenuous link between them.”
Joanna will be curating a selection of the images for her Photo Oxford exhibition and she’s hoping, Covid-19 restrictions allowing, to display them as a salon-style hang at her studio in Oxford’s Park Town: “It’s not a big space, but a charming one architecturally as it was originally a drawing studio,” she said, adding that she’ll be led by government guidelines at the time on how to display the works and manage access for visitors.
Being in Park Town makes Joanna feel part of the city’s photography heritage, which reaches right back to the early female pioneers. At the turn of the 19th Century, just a few doors away from Joanna’s studio, Sarah Angelina Acland began her career as a portrait photographer before, as a pioneer of colour photography, becoming one of Britain’s most important photographers of the time.
Original photographs by Sarah Angelina Acland will be on display at the History of Science Museum on Broad Street during the Festival. Oxford Brookes students will be exploring ‘Miss Acland’s Gaze: Oxford as photographed and lived by Sarah Angelina Acland (1849-1930)’ with images included in Festival projections in Gloucester Green on the evenings of 16 and 17 October.
Joanna’s own career spans 25 years or more and as a child she took photos of school plays. As a photographer she has worked in many countries, including Eritrea and Gaza, before settling in Oxford ten years ago. She agreed the city’s beauty and heritage makes it difficult to take a bad photo in Oxford, adding “trying to take an original photograph is perhaps more challenging than taking a good one.”
“Oxford is definitely a destination for photographers, as in normal times around eight million million tourists come with their cameras,” she said, pointing out that Henry Fox Talbot, was himself a tourist with a camera in Oxford. Talbot, who developed the concept of photography and created the first ‘calotype’ photographs in 1840, photographed Oxford more than anywhere except his home in Wiltshire. Thousands of his images reside in The Bodleian Library archives and have been recently digitised for public access.
The work The Bodleian Library is doing to expand its photographic collections adds to Oxford being an exciting place for academics researching the medium. Joanna feels the city still has a way to go in the visual arts, and sees opportunities to develop the city’s photography scene with galleries, workshops and connectors for photography practitioners: “I do feel that the visual presence of photography that is accessible in the city has some catching up to do with the academic side, which is what Photo Oxford’s brilliant for because it gives exposure to the images themselves.”
At a time when women are pushing for equal rights in the arts, Joanna feels photography is generally a good place for women to be. “I’m slightly unusual as I see it as an art form which women have been able to get involved in right from the beginning. I don’t feel it has the same glass ceiling or physical limitations as other careers,” she said, citing the achievements of Sarah Angelina Acland and her contemporary, the world-renowned portraitist Julia Margaret Cameron.
On whether women are getting similar opportunities to men, Joanna is open-minded: “When you look at awards, grants and commissions, they are heavily male dominated. I’m not sure if that’s because there's simply not that many women, as I don’t feel there’s a bar, or that it’s harder being a woman in photography.”
She points out that many photography degree and MA courses have more women than men, and this is reflected in the industry. “Again, when you go to auction houses such as Christies, Sotheby’s or Phillips, there’s a huge amount of women at the higher end, in sales and in the galleries. So I do think it is increasingly a medium accessible to everybody.”
Digital technology and Instagram have doubtlessly changed beyond recognition how photographers reach and connect with people, but it can work both ways: “I feel there’s an enormous deluge of imagery,” said Joanna. “Everyone is now a photographer, there are different technologies and people are doing all kinds of things, creating images from global satellites, hand stitching photographic prints, and so on. The photography spectrum is much broader than it’s ever been.”
She considers the abundance of imagery makes it more difficult to get noticed if you’re unknown or starting out: “Getting seen is difficult because there’s so much imagery, and I feel there’s a growing division between the galleries and their PR mechanisms reaching huge audiences, and everyone else.”
Instagram can work if you’re well organised and able to link into bigger networks, as Joanna’s current campaign to support London theatres has shown. As the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions began to ease, she and a friend asked London theatres that were closed if they could go and take photographs of their empty auditoria then sell them to raise funds. Their response was overwhelmingly positive and the campaign, ‘Custodians for Covid’ had raised an impressive £105,000 at the time of writing:
“Our campaign was very centred around Instagram and it was brilliant, all the theatres and their networks were there, and people have been posting and sharing behind-the-scenes pics and human stories. The whole campaign became more of a big conversation between a wider group. It is still really important to see beautifully laid out pieces in print, but for most of us Instagram is a really exciting medium.”
Joanna Vestey’s Circles exhibition takes the visitor on a journey through 115 years of photographic history. The collection of photographic prints weaves an idiosyncratic path, from early modernist works, drawn to the circle’s economy of form by Edward Steichen and Imogen Cunningham, to conceptually driven works by John Baldessari and Lewis Baltz arriving into the 21st century with politically motivated works by Broomberg and Chanarin, all utilising this same, basic shape. It is a wide-ranging collection with each of the photographs included being connected by the presence of a circle; some clearly and intentionally some wholly incidentally.
Joanna considers her circles collection to be pretty much complete: “In the first pieces I bought, I wouldn’t immediately see circles,” she said. “There’d be a wheel, a bubble or a balloon. Then I guess over the last five years this has been much more obvious and you can see them much more. So I think perhaps it is done, there are 50 images within the collection and this perhaps feels like a lovely point to stop. And I don’t want to become known as the person who goes shopping for circles.”
Putting her exhibition together for Photo Oxford and continuing ‘Custodians for Covid’ (which involves a Christie’s auction of one of the prints in November), will be keeping Joanna busy, after which she plans to turn her skills and experience to lecturing, and she may publish an earlier curatorial project, ‘Beyond the Negative,’ into a visually-led and accessible book.
“So much has changed with photography since I started on black and white, 35mm film. Now there’s an incredible breadth of technological techniques to hand, such as virtual and augmented reality cameras, so I really want to take a big step back and have a think about how my experience can help others starting out.”
Joanna Vestey: Circles
Pythagoras said; The circle is the most perfect shape, it withholds all and everything emerges out of it. Taking this simple and profound shape as its starting point, for the last 20 years, this Oxford-based photographic collection has acquired prints linked by the common visual connection of having a circle somewhere within the frame.
The exhibition will show a selection of photography from the 20th and 21st Century - featuring early modernist works by Edward Steichen and Margaret Bourke-White, more conceptually driven works by John Baldessari and Lewis Baltz along with more politically driven works by Broomberg and Chanarin. It is a wide-ranging collection with each of the photographs included being connected by the presence of a circle; some clearly and intentionally some more incidentally. Curated by Joanna Vestey and Tristan Lund.
Joanna Vestey's Studio, North Oxford
Open to view:
Saturday 17th October, 10am-12noon
Saturday 24th October, 2-4pm
Saturday 7th November, 2-4pm
Saturday 14th November, 2-4pm
Booking details to come. Venue details to be provided on confirmation of bookings.