Jem Southam: The Upton Pyne Series

Jem Southam created the Upton Pyne series, which is comprised of fifty photographs, during a seven-year period in which he chronicled the vicissitudes of a pond in a small commuter and agricultural community near his home in Cornwall in the southwest of England.

The tiny Upton Pyne pond was not a “natural” formation, but rather, the ignominious result of an abandoned eighteenth-century manganese mine. As such, the community regarded it as a village dump and heaped it with discarded appliances, car parts, farm slurry, and fallen trees.

The series is structured in three parts to tell the story of the evolution of the pond. The first part is a poignant narrative of a man, living adjacent to it, who struggled to transform the area of the small pool into his vision of a romanticized eden containing fowl, fish, bowers of trees, banks of flowers, and the requisite benches to ease contemplation. For Southam, it became an allegory about one human being’s attempt to make the world a better place. Within three years time, however, this person departed suddenly and, again, the pond began to decline.

In the second part of the series, another resident took up the work of maintaining the pond, driven by an entirely different “suburban” vision, accommodating swing-sets, picnic tables, woodpiles, and plastic garden ornaments.

The final part, the epilogue, seen from the edge of the pond looking outwards, locates the site into a broader geographic perspective in which bucolic agricultural vistas bump up against farm detritus.

The Upton Pyne series is described by the artist as a “collection of histories.” The pictures offer a slice of history by covering a finite period in the day-to-day life of a community, but they also address broader concerns and longer histories. The images touch upon important social issues, raising questions pertaining to ”culture” and “nature,” the urbanization of village life, globalization, and the environment. Further, they offer the occasion to examine the need for pastoral narratives and metaphors, and to delve into the central human longing for an arcadian past. It is, of course, the artist who creates these histories, so the Upton Pyne photographs also introduce an artist whose practice is tied to the documentation of place in relation to time and the reworking of the chronically-debated terms of beauty.

Images from the series are printed in editions of 8 and measure approximately 27 by 34 inches.