PHO705 Week 8: Jem Southam

John Duncan, who reviewed my portfolio in Week 6, suggested that I look at the practice of Jem Southam, particularly The Red River which Southam published in 1989 (Southam et al 1989, Southam 2019). In it, he followed the Red River in Cornwall from source to sea, although in reality the ‘river’ is more of a tin-mining stream coursing through a valley. This is one of Southam’s earlier bodies of work. It has a highly atmospheric, spontaneous, slightly off-kilter feel to it, likely because Southam was using a hand-held camera in contrast to the large tripod-mounted plate cameras that he used for much of his subsequent work.

Southam has spoken interestingly of how he came to approach this subject, in the form of a long talk available online (Southam 2020). He started out wanting a portrait of local distinctiveness, a record or topography of a particular landscape. However, he found that this approach was not really touching the lives of the people who lived in the valley. His project felt ‘flat’ and something was missing.

Fig. 1: Jem Southam 1989
Fig. 1: Jem Southam 1989. From his book The Red River and in this image showing the modern realities of the meeting of pastoral and the industrial sublime.

The key came when Southam was looking at a painting of Manchester in the 1850s by William Wyld (‘Kersal Moor, 1852’), which is all golden light and smoking chimneys, and he realized that what had really been motivating him was the story of pastoral set against the industrial sublime, in fact the painting’s subject. Much of the Red River, too, was a smoky and polluted landscape. At the same time, Southam realized that other stories – he calls them ‘myths’ – had been motivating him unconsciously, in particular Biblical stories and the stories in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress which he was re-reading.

This realization enabled Southam to concentrate on specific things in the landscape, or on specific images to frame, because he now understood why he was doing it. He was showing the effects of industrialization on a traditional pastoral landscape and its people far more than he was simply making a portrait of a valley. This was no pastoral childhood wonderland but a mucky and sometimes disturbing reality.

Fig. 2: Jem Southam 1989
Fig. 2: Jem Southam 1989. From his book The Red River. The mucky reality of ‘pastoral’.
Fig. 3: Jem Southam 1989
Fig. 3: Jem Southam 1989. From his book The Red River. More disturbing than ‘beautiful’.

Southam’s realization provided the close, evocative contact his project had lacked until then. Southam believes that these stories exist in all of us. We imbibe them growing up from children’s books or in school or as part of our culture. Some are indeed myths and collectively we have been carrying them for thousands of years. And while we may often carry them unconsciously, they are deeply influential and can affect our attitude to everything we see.

Southam’s talk in this video is a fascinating example of the creative process at work and a reminder that we have to bring the whole of ourselves to a project. Unless we do, the chances are we won’t understand our motivations and so our project, too, may end up lacking because we are not connecting with what our subconscious is telling us.

In another talk online, with time with Martin Parr, Southam points out that ‘the process of developing a piece of work is actually led by the place itself’ (Parr 2019). It is a kind of reverse process that begins by accident, in Southam’s experience. Something draws us to a particular locale, but we do not yet know what. As the images pile up we are confronted by the need to establish why we are drawn to this place, what our work is really about, and how we are going to tell the story.

These are really helpful points to hear and completely relevant to my own project, particularly the clash of pastoral and industrial which is ever-present in the English countryside. I am faced with exactly the questions Southam poses and I need to go through the same process. When I find out why I am doing what I do, then I will begin to know something.

References

PARR, Martin. 2019. ‘Sofa Sessions: Conversations with Martin Parr – Jem Southam’. Martin Parr Foundation [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKKOFCBmaLk [accessed 18 March 2021].

SOUTHAM, Jem, D. M. THOMAS, F. A. TURK and Jan RUHRMUND. 1989. The Red River. Manchester: Cornerhouse.

SOUTHAM, Jem. 2019. ‘Red River’. Thomas Tallis School [online]. Available at: https://vimeo.com/325618049 [accessed 18 March 2021].

SOUTHAM, Jem. 2020. ‘Jem Southam – From Red River to the River Winter’. On Landscape [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vv9vezFysuI [accessed 19 March 2021].

Figures

Figure 1. Jem SOUTHAM. 1989. Untitled. From: Jem Southam, D. M. Thomas, F. A. Turk and Jan Ruhrmund. 1989. The Red River. Manchester: Cornerhouse.

Figure 2. Jem SOUTHAM. 1989. Untitled. From: Jem Southam, D. M. Thomas, F. A. Turk and Jan Ruhrmund. 1989. The Red River. Manchester: Cornerhouse.

Figure 3. Jem SOUTHAM. 1989. Untitled. From: Jem Southam, D. M. Thomas, F. A. Turk and Jan Ruhrmund. 1989. The Red River. Manchester: Cornerhouse.