Jem Southam: The Rockfalls of Normandy

Jem Southam’s careful studies of the effects of time continue with his photographs of the rockfalls of Normandy. Revisiting the same sites over the course of several years, Southam’s photographs of crumbling cliffs and boulders reward careful inspection of details, indulging in the subtle beauty of colors and textures. Medium and content unite to form a unique praxis in which the artist engages the implicit tensions between the split-second nature of photography and the slow, entropic, geologic time of his subject matter. By investigating the human relationship to landscape, Southam shares important sensibilities with artists such as Richard Long and Robert Smithson, but he eschews direct intervention in a way that aligns him with Bernd and Hilla Becher. Like his German predecessors, Southam believes in the inherent value of placing the camera and letting light and emulsion work their descriptive magic.

On both sides of the English Channel, idyllic English and French grasslands come crashing down in steep cliffs where land meets sea. Once joined by a chalk bridge, the elements have eroded the coastlines, creating dramatic tableaux pierced by the thunder of falling rock. Southam has been continually drawn to this tension between beauty and terror; for 15 years he has returned to photograph the cliffs on the coast of England, and more recently here their mirror in France. The images of rockfalls are echoes of cataclysmic geopolitical events—battles witnessed and wars waged—products of the times in which they were made. Southam’s practice unites such seemingly disparate histories by merging the scale of time with typological repetition; human history on one side of the camera and natural history on the other, unite in the aperture mechanism of the lens.