Joanna Vestey

5 x 7
By Lena Fritsch

This year, Photo Oxford focusses on women. Wondering what photography means to others, I’m interviewing 5 women working with photography in different parts of the world. I ask them 7 questions each, curious to hear their individual photography stories. My fourth interviewee is based in Oxford: Joanna Vestey.

Joanna Vestey (b.1972, London) is a photographic artist and collector of photography. Her work is often concerned with the presentation and digitisation of information. She studied photography at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design and at Bezalel Academy, Jerusalem. Vestey also holds an MA in Social Anthropology and Development from SOAS, University of London, and recently completed a practice-led PhD at the European Centre for Documentary Research. Her photographs have been exhibited at the Ashmolean Museum, Southbank Centre, the 2017 Venice Biennale, Glastonbury Festival, and published in Le Monde, The Times and The British Journal of Photography. Her work is held in several collections, including the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Joanna Vestey. Photo: Chloe Brooks

Lena Fritsch: Do you remember when and how you first became interested in photography?

Joanna Vestey: Absolutely, I was about 15 years old and my grandfather had huge stacks of faded and rather curling National Geographic magazines at his house. I remember leafing through these and being transported through the images into other fantastically foreign and exotic seeming places. As a child I had only ever travelled a few times to snowy mountains in France so seeing these remarkable photographs – often intimately made – of places and people from diverse places, ranging from Jerusalem to Antarctica, captured my imaginations. This is how my life-long love of photography and social anthropology began.

You are a photographer and also a photography collector. Let’s first focus on your collection. When did you start collecting photographs and what kind of approach do you take?

When I was 21, I did a degree in photography at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design. Towards the end of my time there I had begun working a little: assisting, booking in shoots, printing for friends. With a little of this money I bought a couple of prints. One from Michael Hoppen and one from Zelda Cheattle. At the time they were relatively inexpensive, around £200. Being a student they felt like a huge extravagance but something special to be investing in. I still have one of the pieces at my house today. To be honest, I never really had any set approach, just from time to time purchasing the odd piece that I loved and could afford. Over the years, photography became much more popular. Michael Hoppen was a huge driving force in putting London on the map; Paris and New York were previously much better known for it. Today, with Photo London, the extensive collections at Tate and V&A, and the amount of BA’s and MA’s available, the situation has really changed.

Gary Fabian Miller, There is no Shadow, 2017. Light, oil, Lambda c-type print from unique dye destruction print. © Gary Fabian Miller

I know that you have a particular interest in the motif of the circle in photographs. Could you tell me more about this collection focus?

The funny thing is I never really set out to build a collection or to have a focus or particular theme to what I acquired. During the first 15 years or so, my purchasing was quite ad hoc and reactive. I never really went looking for anything. But if something caught my eye and it felt a good investment that would sit well with other pieces that I owned, I would try and purchase it. As my understanding and appreciation for the medium grew, it became a real treat to be able to purchase things that I felt would sit well together and explore the depth of the medium. My husband became interested in this and we set up the Wigwam Collection together. Reviewing what I had collected to date, the motif of the circle kept appearing. Over the next few years I became much more conscious of the theme. Currently we have fifty pieces that sit together loosely under this umbrella, some clearly showing a circle (such as a piece by Gary Fabian Miller), others more tenuously (such as a Susan Derges’ print made in the River Taw). The collection feels complete and we are no longer adding to it – there is such a diversity within it, images that span 115 years and reflect many different genres and styles.

Edward Streichen, Blossom of White Fingers, c.1923

It’s always difficult to pick a favourite but if you had to give away your collection and you could just keep one single photograph, which one would you choose?

Some of the pieces are so beautiful, it feels wrong to hold onto them in our home forever. I do actually often think about selling the collection and setting it on a new journey. As you ask, I wonder which one I might keep. I think it would be Edward Steichen’s Blossom of White Fingers, which is an exquisite, very warm toned palladium print made around 1923. There isn’t a circle as such but a sense that there could have been ...

When did you begin to take photographs yourself?

When I was 15 my mother won a small point and shoot camera in an auction. I don’t remember the make, really just that it was a strange burgundy colour. It was simple to use and I carried it everywhere. I shot a lot of black and white film through it, during school holidays. I began using the small dark room at school and soon started to be asked to photograph school plays and various other things. My parents gave me a second-hand Nikon FM2 for my 16th birthday, which I carried with me for years. One thing led to another: I did a BA in photography and towards the end I studied at Bezalel in Jerusalem, where I was able to do an internship with Associated Press, in the photo department.

Joanna Vestey, Sister Ann Verena CJGS, Bishop Edward King Chapel, Riopon College, 2015
Robert Wyllie, Head Porter, The Milner Hall, Rhodes House, 2015© Joanna Vestey. Courtesy the artist

In 2015, you published a photobook titled ‘Custodians’, exploring colleges and other buildings in Oxford. You met various ‘custodians’ and provided a glimpse behind doors that are usually closed. Could you tell me more about the project and how this came about?

I had recently moved to Oxford and was fascinated by what lay beyond the many closed doors. I was intrigued by the role of the people looking after these spaces who presided over them. After a bit of research, I contacted spaces which I hoped would make interesting images visually. People were incredibly supportive and generously agreed to be involved, so it just evolved from there. I invited each venue to select who they felt would be a good custodian to include, someone who had a deep relationship with the space in one way or another. It was published by the Ashmolean Museum and their Director, Xa Sturgis, wrote a wonderful introduction.

HyperFocal: 0
Joanna Vestey, Maureen Martin, Duty Manager, Battersea Arts Centre. London, June 2020. © Joanna Vestey. Courtesy the artist.
HyperFocal: 0
Joanna Vestey, Amina L’Bini, Security Supervisor, Royal Opera House. London, June 2020.
© Joanna Vestey. Courtesy the artist.
HyperFocal: 0
Joanna Vestey, David Workman, Youth and Community Director, Southwark Playhouse. London, June 2020. © Joanna Vestey. Courtesy the artist.

More recently, during the pandemic you launched a wonderful project titled ‘Custodians for Covid’ to support theatres in London. I have followed your Instagram posts featuring photographs from the series. Stylistically, they remind me of Düsseldorf School photography – particularly works by Candida Höfer – but against the current background, the works convey a melancholic feel and communicate a serious message. Could you tell me more about ‘Custodians for Covid’ and your experiences shooting these works?

Thank you – we have been really overwhelmed by the support that we have received for this project. In contrast to the Oxford ‘Custodians’ work, these were made under very different circumstances, as you say. The problem I had in Oxford was getting access to the spaces when they were empty, which meant many crack of dawn starts and to be out by 8.30am. However, with the Custodians for Covid series, the bigger challenge was finding people who were able to let us into the spaces, as they were all closed and so many people had been furloughed. Just as lockdown was lifting, with friend and fellow photographer Tara Rowse we photographed 21 theatres in London, again with a custodian present. This time, ‘self isolation’, ‘alone’, ‘social distancing’ had become key words in our vocabulary and have given the figure included in the photograph a deeper meaning.

Theatres are one of the industries that are particularly badly affected financially, due to the nature of their layouts. They don’t have any dates to reopen. Our aim was simply to sell prints to raise money directly for them. So far, we have raised just over £100,000 which has been amazing. And yes, you are right: absolutely, this work connects with Candida Höfer’s photographs and her ideas around the architecture of absence. Paul Valery wrote about the ‘active presence of absent things’ too. Within the current situation, the emptiness of these theatres, the lack of audiences and performers in spaces normally so alive has taken on a much deeper feel as many of them are struggling to survive. It felt like an enormous privilege to have these spaces to ourselves and to be able to marvel at them, but one touched with deep sadness for the so many within the arts who have been so affected. Hopefully good news will be on the horizon with some idea of opening dates soon.

Thank you Lena. I am a huge fan of your work, it is lovely to be having this conversation with you.

Thank you, Jo!