Book Review Homesick By Sara J. Winston Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Sara J. Winston’s book Homesick opens with a downward sweep across a kitchen table’s simple spread in round plates and bowls, half-circle slices of bologna and a tub of margarine.
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins
Photographs by Sara J. Winston
Zatara Press, Richmond, USA, 2015. In English. 62 pp., 38 color illustrations, 8½x11¼".
Selected as one of the Best Books of 2015 by John Gossage
Sara J. Winston’s book Homesick opens with a downward sweep across a kitchen table’s simple spread in round plates and bowls, half-circle slices of bologna and a tub of margarine. The arrangement of these repeating rounds, coupled with the intricate pathways of the tablecloth’s embroidery brings to mind crop circles given up by the shifted perspective of an aerial view. In photographs of domestic forms and figures similarly brimming with embedded meaning while hidden in plain sight, Winston attempts to crack the code. Prompted by her parents’ ailing health and later the discovery of her own chronic illness, she relocated back home and began to photograph a rediscovered and reconfigured domestic life. Food is central to this family’s shifting notions of soundness and health, appearing as both nourishing tonic and possible culprit. The dominant circles in the opening image are echoed in the decorative pattern of bed sheets, then slices of onion and knots in a wooden cutting board. The fringy roots of spring onions sit opposite a blanket’s soft tassel. A bowl of tomatoes — taut and rosy in one photograph, recur in another, now fewer and almost black.
A short story by Ani Katz assumes Winston’s first person voice in a nostalgic, but un-idealized recollection of her mother cooking and the family meal, echoing the tone of many of the photographs. A view of Winston’s mother’s soft, capable hand hovering over pounded-out chicken marked by knife score and sinew plays off the forceful lines of a snake plant’s patterned leaves in the image opposite. Yet Winston’s photographs also explore how in the family’s present tense and state of affairs, food is a facet of failing heath, and the body’s inevitable damage and decay. The ubiquity of a cat eating from its bowl is dispelled by the presence of a bloody wound on the back of its head. Bananas freed from their rotting peels find temporary suspension from disintegration in a plastic bag. A hospital meal is made safe in its pairing with Mrs. Dash, devoid of the threat of salt. Katz’s story also gives voice to the first inklings of Winton’s own disease through an analogy to food — “I told you how I’d begun to feel funny, how my insides were a mess like a dish with too many ingredients.” A cohesive, trustworthy whole begins to unravel, like the half peeled orange that recurs in her photographs. “I left home for the usual reasons. I guess I came home for the usual ones too.” This line from Katz’s story may be true of Winston’s motivations, yet she casts an atypical homecoming here.
In many ways, Homesick wears its heart on its sleeve; in lyrical images that meld keen observation and a tender depiction. Katz reveals her deep familiarity with these people, objects and rooms, while also retaining a certain wistful remove. Little is shared of the family’s physical relationships or even accidental proximities to one another. Figures are usually solitary and shot from behind. A story of family life in cropped limbs and headless torsos, prone and on the block; and written in part by someone else. Empty beds have the perennial open ended-ness of a fill-in-the-blank. Rumpled linens leave their fleeting markings on the skin, in points of contact that inevitably fade away, like the story’s recollection of a girl and her father and “the different ways I used to fit against his chest and lap.” Even Winston’s own name is hard to find here; appearing only on the copyright page and spine, never front and center. She’s dealing with her own illness too (Multiple Sclerosis), so the vulnerabilities of ailing health she sees in her family and home are no doubt a harder hit. The spiral binding and plastic cover of Homesick at first conjures a dime-store photo album for family shots, but quickly reads instead as a type of instructional manual — wanting to given us a handle on things that have no how-to’s, for Winston, or any of us.—KAREN JENKINS
KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.
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