The Rockfalls of Normandy
Jem Southam's careful studies of the effects of time continue with his photographs of the rockfalls of Normandy, the subject of his second solo exhibition at Robert Mann Gallery. 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. If only on a metaphorical level, Southam's work always makes reference to humanity: his is a world that remains occupied by people. 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.
Jem Southam is represented by Robert Mann Gallery with Charles Isaacs Photographs. The Rockfalls of Normandy was originally supported in 2005 by a residency with Pôle Image Haute-Normandie. His series Upton Pyne, recently exhibited at the Yale Center for British Art, will travel to the Davis Museum at Wellesley College from March 19 to June 8, 2008. Southam was born in Bristol, England in 1950. He is the recipient of numerous awards and has had solo shows at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Tate St. Ives. Recent monographs include Landscape Stories and Painter's Pool. Southam lives and works in Exeter, England.
The New York Sun
April 10, 2008
A cartoon yellowing on my refrigerator door is captioned, "He didn't know how to appreciate nature." It shows a middle-aged man sitting in a stuffed armchair improbably set down in an open field. There are mountains in the background, trees to the right, and an attentive rabbit to the left. A balloon above the man's head shows what he is thinking: "There's no plot." The cartoon, by Bruce Eric Kaplan, came to mind as I looked at the 13 pictures in "Jem Southam: The Rockfalls of Normandy" at the Robert Mann Gallery. What am I supposed to see in these works?
Jem Southam, who was born in Bristol in 1950, is one of England's finest contemporary landscape photographers. Much of his work, including the recent "Upton Pyne," is about the effect of man on the rural countryside, although nothing made by man is visible in "The Rockfalls of Normandy." The pictures at Robert Mann are 46.5-by-55.25-inch chromogenic dye coupler prints. The large scale is appropriate here because the images encompass vast distances along the shore, immense geological features, boulders, rocks, pebbles, grains of sand, and lichen, all of which Mr. Southam wants us to see with sharp particularity. The complex processing is necessary to achieve the subtle, deep colors: ferrous oranges in the cliffs, dark seaweed greens in the tide pools, delicate pearly blue grays in the distant seacoast. The pictures have sonorous French place names — "Valleuse de Cure," "Senneville-sur-Fecamp," "Les Petites Dalles," and "St. Pierre-en-Port" — and the pristine beauty of spots that are still too difficult to access for littering tourists.
Still, nature has no meaning for me. I understand the intellectual, and even some of the spiritual, beliefs that produced the transcendental Hudson River School of painters, and the impulses that sent Ansel Adams up the Sierra Nevadas, and I have hiked, camped, and climbed. Although nature may be nice to look it, I am too far from the Druids to be inspired by it. What I see in Mr. Southam's images is a meticulous use of found materials to produce complex works of abstract design. They are like the nonobjective paintings of mid-century except, of course, they are objective. Or they are like highly patterned Islamic art, except the patterns do not recur. Colors, shapes, and scale are the elements of these sophisticated compositions.
Another element Mr. Southam incorporates, by way of providing a "plot," is time. One picture was taken at Senneville-sur-Fecamp in February 2006, and another was taken from the same spot in April of that year. The first was shot at a low tide that exposed the rocky shelf abutting the cliffs and gave the scene a brownish cast; the second at high tide, when a wide swath of seaweed gave it a bluish green tint. Between the picture taken at Vaucottes in November 2005 and the one taken in February 2006, the disposition of the black pebbles on the beach changed considerably. The high cliff jutting seaward in the distance seems to be the same in each, but we understand that, given eons, it, too, will go. Whatever others find to appreciate in nature or in Mr. Southam's precise renderings of it, to me the most discernible theme is those "awful notes, whose concord shall not fail" that the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth heard in nature, and wrote about in "Mutability."
The New York Times
April 11, 2008
Having spent the last decade and a half exploring the English landscape, the photographer Jem Southam has crossed the Channel for his latest series, "The Rockfalls of Normandy." His pictures show the crumbling cliffs and eroding beaches along the northern coast of France, treating the landscape as a (slowly) moving target.
Geologic change is best articulated in pairs of photographs, taken several months apart at the same locations. The mossy pebbles at the water's edge in "Senneville-sur-Fécamp," captured in February and April of 2006, seem to have receded in the later photograph. The same phenomenon occurs in "Vaucottes" (November 2005 and February 2006), as a thin slice of water creeps in from the right side of the frame.
In several frontal shots of the cliffs, shallow pictorial space emphasizes the effects of time and gravity. The partly sheared-off face of a mottled rock formation in "St. Pierre-en-Port" (November 2005) exposes a uniformly chalky underlayer.
The photographs have a soothing quality, as if Mr. Southam were smoothing over the historical scars of Normandy's beaches by calling attention to the larger forces of nature. These landscapes are haunted not by ghosts of the Allied invasion, but by English poets like Wordsworth and Matthew Arnold.