The Bureau: Landscape Photographer, Jem Southam

The Bureau: Landscape Photographer, Jem Southam

 

Jem Southam is a highly influential British landscape photographer, who has been documenting incremental change in the environments around him for the past five decades. Based in the South-West of England, Southam is known for his large-format colour photographs that reveal the shifting character of the land, as forces both natural and man-made act upon it. 

We spoke with Southam on the nature of landscape photography, storytelling through images, and wearing the right clothes for the job.

Photography by John Spinks.

 

 

Drake's: When you head into nature with your camera, what are you hoping to find?

 

Jem Southam: I have found I am drawn to particular sites which share a few things in common. One is proximity to water – ponds, rivers, streams, or the coast – first because they are always shifting and changing, and second because of their surfaces of reflected light. Well-manicured landscapes don’t interest me at all, but sites where working processes determine what is in front of the camera are of interest – mines and harbours, or those where evidence of geological transformation are clearly evident. Once I become fixated on a place I return over and over again to observe and photograph, often for many years. Making a piece of work is for me a process of distillation, the results of hundreds of hours of looking, discovering, thinking, presented in perhaps twenty pictures.

 

 

How can the medium of landscape imagery be used to tell stories?

 

Landscapes are stories, we just need to learn how to read them. And there are many, many stories – waiting for someone to come along, and give shape to them and find an appropriate means to tell them. Part of the fascination for me is allowing a place to reveal a complex web of narratives, through a slow and patient engagement, and as it does so I am struggling to find a form, a structure, with which to articulate some of what I have found. My works always bring texts together with the pictures – captions, short stories, essays, lists – which is a reason why books are such a rich way to bring study together.

 

What can rural landscape photography do that city photography can’t?

 

I work in both. The first exhibition and book I made was called ‘The Floating Harbour’ which was a long study of the declining dock landscape in the middle of Bristol. And a few years ago I made a work on Twitter called ‘St James Halt’ which was a suburban investigation made with an iPad, all taken within a few hundred yards of our home. To answer the question more directly I have three thoughts. What photographers work with is light, and the endless nuances of the way in which light envelopes the material world. The wonderful subtleties with which our medium responds to such nuance is what we explore each and every time we make a picture, and rural landscapes open up that investigation more readily than cities do. Secondly, rural landscapes are fluid. Thirdly they carry and expose their histories more readily.

 

 

Is there a part of the world you would like to photograph, but haven’t yet visited?

 

For a variety of reasons I have always worked close to home. It makes the revisiting of each site much simpler and I never wished to leave my family for long. Now though, things are changing and I have been planning journeys and trips. During each spring, on the cliffs around much of the coast of Britain, hundreds of thousands of seabirds come to breed, nest and rear their young, and for the past few years I have begun to make trips to watch them. This year the Orkneys and the Shetlands Islands were on my list…

There is one faraway place though that I have always dreamed of visiting, and that is the Altiplano in Bolivia. Goodness knows why, but it has me hooked. Landscapes exist more in our imagination, though, than they do out in the world: we learn of them from pictures and story books, films and television, from postcards, paintings and jigsaws, calendars and biscuit tins, and perhaps it is often best to keep them there, in our minds.

For you, what makes a successful image?

 

The most successful pictures for me are the ones where what is in front of the camera determines the picture, rather than those determined by the person behind the camera. It is the world out there and the medium of photography itself, which are the primary interests.

 

Your work appears to be a fairly solitary pursuit. Does a sense of solitude inform the images?

 

Most of the time I am out on my own, though I do occasionally share a walk, always an interesting experience as each of us notices different things and has different thoughts. However, my attention to what is around me is diverted and I often make mistakes when with others!

I think of photographers as explorers, bringing back to our fellows something of which we have found.

And lastly, do you have trusty piece of clothing that always accompanies you on your ventures into the wild?

 

Not one, though the past five years I have been photographing, through each winter, along a short stretch of riverbank which frequently floods, and I am often in my waders. They are very comforting, so too the dark green woolen balaclava which I inherited from my father. Physical and psychological comfort is most important, and for that I need pockets! Large capacious pockets, like the ones in the long baggy corduroy shorts I wore when out rambling as a kid, as I am still always picking up odd bits of twig, a leaf, a stone or a feather.

When up high on a ladder looking through the screen of the camera, I wear a jacket with pockets full of the necessary bits of equipment – reading glasses, the lightmeter, a loupe to focus, a spirit level, a notebook and pencil, and a handkerchief to wipe raindrops off the lens when necessary.