Cumbria, England’s Lake District, has given us poetry by Wordsworth and Coleridge, The Lakes by Taylor Swift, and Virginia Woods-Jack, an award-winning photographic artist and art advocate. In the past, Woods-Jack has released a book (None Of This Was Done With Us In Mind), helped to judge Capital Photographer of the Year, and won an international Female In Focus photography award.
Woods-Jack says her idyllic Cumbria upbringing nurtured her artistic spark. In art school, the spark became a flame, leading Woods-Jack to a vibrant career in London’s thriving creative scene, alongside up-and-comers who would go on to shape the field. “I was working with what are now some of the world’s top fine art photographers. Simon Norfolk, Simon Roberts, Greg Williams. It was brilliant. We were all really young, we were all in our 20s, we went to all of the festivals. It was an exciting time.”
Seeking a change from the bustle after the birth of her first daughter, Woods-Jack and her then-husband landed in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. She knew little about Aotearoa but found Wellington to be “oddly familiar”. The feeling persisted until a trip to Te Urewera National Park and Lake Waikaremoana. “I was just transfixed”, she recalls. “I finally felt like I was on the other side of the world and feeling like the land held so much history.” She recalls people saying there was “just no history in that part of the world. Maybe there isn’t the man-made history, the historical buildings and landmarks, but I soon came to realise knowing New Zealand is about knowing the land”.
Land is a central theme in Woods-Jack’s work. Her practice challenges us to re-frame our interactions with the environment by evoking notions of connection, memory, and place. “Photography is supposed to be a direct reference to the world, but to be honest, that doesn’t hugely interest me. It’s about delving into that felt response, that relationship with the land as opposed to our relationship to the land. Because when it’s with, it’s a two-way street”. In reflection of that dialectic, Woods-Jack’s photographs result from a layered and responsive process. “I don’t just go out and capture images”, she explains. “Often I’ll create a single image, and then it’s something that sparks a deep curiosity. I’ll wait for the work to speak to me, to tell me what it’s saying before I respond. It’s more of a conversation as opposed to a statement.”
Historically, the medium of photography has captured the environment through a similarly exploitative and possessive lens as is applied to women, viewing both as objects for consumption and domination. Photos taken from a Eurocentric/patriarchal viewpoint have reflected the ways in which societies feel entitled to use women’s resources and natural resources carelessly. There’s a poetic parallel then, between Woods-Jack’s advocacy for the environment and her championing of women and non-binary artists.
One avenue through which she channels her advocacy is Women in Photography NZ and Australia (WIP). Founded in 2018, it’s an Instagram account where women and non-binary artists showcase their work and engage in dialogue. WIP has become a thriving community of trans-Tasman artists and a platform for the We Look To The Future With Progressive Ideals conversations, a project in partnership with Thistle Hall, inspired by a quotation from a 1927 letter to a Wellington City Engineer which is now inscribed on the side of the building. Over six months, The Lightbox (Thistle Hall’s outdoor illuminated display) exhibited the work of eight diverse artists. In addition to being an accessible public space, The Lightbox’s lit square served as a representational “in-between” for Instagram and the real world. Woods-Jack remembers musing on the quote on the wall above it and conceiving of a way to re-contextualise it for 2021. “It was a statement that came from men. Would that future have incorporated women? What would it look like through the lens of indigenous, white settler, and non-binary artists?”. Woods-Jack’s own response is hopeful. “It’s intersectional, isn’t it? It’s about all of us”.
Left: Virginia Woods-Jack, Baring Head CO2 1972-2021. Right: Virginia Woods-Jack, Sunday 7th November 8.49pm 57 minute exposure
First published in ArtZone #89