Familiarity with the natural world, particularly that which is close to home, does not necessarily engender an intense sense of engagement. Unlike the sublime – mountain tops, canyons, vast oceans, where a feeling in the moment is all consuming – the ‘familiar’ occupies a space within the subconscious mind where memory resides. Here, a sense of belonging may replace the exhilaration experienced when encountering environments which thrill us with their scale and splendour. Photography can act as a medium for remembering – family portraits for instance – collected over decades, which reveal in (sometimes) uncompromising detail, the passage of time.
In nature these shifts happen with the rhythm of the seasons. Often, one has to look closely at the subtlety of the changes to realize their significance. The work of the photographer Jem Southam deals with these changes which one may casually dismiss as insignificant, but which imply a sense of the effects of time, both on the landscape in front of the lens, but also that which is stored in personal and collective memory.
River Creedy at Sweetham, 22 January 2011
By making repeated visits to places he knows intimately, Southam becomes attuned to hundreds of ‘small traumas’, which build like whisperings among the leaves, creating a sense of movement through time. Altered notes – in a musical sense – become fractures and fissions, which then become significant when compared to the next rendition and so on. It is this familiarity and love of place which could be seen as a metaphor for the universality of memory and the frailties and struggle implicit in human experience.
In this case, that tension is created by Winter – or the retreat in sorrow (trauma) of Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest. It would perhaps have been an obvious starting point for Southam to time his wanderings with forecasts of torrential downpours and the river in spate. However, this approach would have removed space for rewarding contemplation. Instead, an intense engagement with a quality of light which occurs around dawn, suggests the forming of a new relationship with place, binding the series together in a stream of consciousness.
When considering Joel Meyerowitz’s Aftermath project on the attack on the World Trade Centre, the writer David Campany coined the term ‘Late Photography’ – the idea of photographing the traces of an event, rather than the event itself. These pictures are ‘of’ a river and ‘of’ winter, but also allude to thaw and flood, which link them to this overarching concept, and by association, to traces of natural process and the cycles of trauma.
In his book Spectral Evidence, Ulrich Baer discusses his views on the connection between the arrested moment explicit in photography and the act of remembering. He connects pictures of historical sites of trauma – concentration camps – with memories, by arguing that it is precisely the nothingness – or familiarity – within a photograph, which removes it from historical reference points and draws it back into the unconscious mind. It is this disconnect with history and current affairs, which acts to steer Southam’s pictures towards associations with memory.
The river, Winter pictures are above all moments of discovery and communion. It is this sharing of the familiar, which draws our attention to that which we have not before cared to register. The effect is to re-calibrate one’s notions of significance. The ravages of water, rendered in exquisite detail, remind us of the complex relationship between beauty, death and re-generation. A relationship which is exploited by Southam through the descriptive properties of his 10x8in plate camera.