Jem Southam: Rockfalls and Rivermouths
Since 1994, Jem Southam has produced large-scale works depicting coastal rockfalls, rivermouths, and man-made dewponds. Exploring themes related to time and flux, Southam repeatedly returned to specific rural and coastal sites in the South and Southwest of England and patiently recorded color images of each landscape. Making large format negatives up to 8 x 10 inches, he captured the shifting formations of earth and water achieving metaphorical representations of the competing, but integrated, modes of time that accompany the human condition -- repetitive, predictable cycles enmeshed in instability, contingency, and entropy.
Though his themes are classic, Southam both embraces and undermines conventions of image-making. His carefully seen views can be linked to the long traditions of English landscape painting in which the aesthetic categories of “the sublime” and “the beautiful” were used symbolically to narrate social and moral concerns. However, his images also are loaded with contemporary associations. His preoccupation with serial, programmatic works ally him to conceptual artists such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Jan Dibbets, or Richard Long. At the same time, his examination of the changing landscape is sympathetic with strategies used by Robert Adams or Richard Misrach in works categorized as the New Topographics. Moreover, the monumentality of his vision can be aligned with the ambitions of land art practitioners such as Robert Smithson.
However, Southam’s work is an individual and original achievement. Though Southam does not consider himself to be a photographer, per se, but an artist who uses photography to address the greater issues of contemporary art, the subtle beauty of his pictures also reveal an ongoing engagement with and critique of the photographic medium. These works harness the specificity and descriptive power that large-scale images ideally project. His colorist’s sensibility complicates the surface requiring the eye to move around the picture, while the wealth of minutia demands long looking and contemplation. This complexity is tamed by Southam’s ability to control the overall composition in which he unifies the details and marries grandly perceived space with a sense of duration.
Although this remains an ongoing project, works from this series were published in 2000 as The Shape of Time: Rockfalls Rivermouths Ponds.