Jem Southam Interview: The Pastoral Moth

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“The premise and nature of each work, and its eventual architecture, develop as the work is progressing, and again I am led in this by my relationship with the particular site”.

I remember first stumbling across Jem’s work perhaps ten years ago and at the time I was moored in the tradition of what I can only refer to as aggressive and fast imagery. I was a student of extremities and was always at odds with a tradition of an image that took time to percolate. I wanted what photography by its nature tends to gravitate towards-namely, instant gratification even if the subject was steeped in nihilism or existential polemics. In regarding the subtleties of photography, its form and distribution of potential referents in glacial manner, I missed the proverbial boat. Perhaps naïve or shy to be left alone to think through or persist in matters metaphysical or sublime, I never managed to convert and did manage to dismiss ruefully as time marches forward work that demanded more from me than I from it.

In work like Jem’s, what appears as a foggy tree study underpins layers of tradition and photographic intuition that was at the time flying over my head and into wider pastures, disseminating hints of culture and intellectual propriety that the sharp-shock image delivered quickly, but dissipated even more rapidly and without the wisdom of reflection. At the time, I simply could not absorb the tradition of the slow and the measured. It’s a shame really as a number of these artists that I ignored, but made mental note of are now resounding in my memory and beating a path to my newly conscripted dialogue with the medium. Jem is a patient man and he has given over a pardon, which has allowed me to catch up with his lasting and meditative use of the medium. Below is an interview that Jem was kind enough to administer regarding his work, but in particular his book The Moth, which is available through MACK.

BF: I am somewhat unfamiliar with your work and process. I received your new book “The Moth” published by MACK. I remember receiving it and flipping through it quickly as I do with all books I receive-I have a sort of inbuilt short attention span of needy reward with book objects. This leads to a casual more thoughtful respite later in the comfort of a chair and with plausible interludes of hopeful interventions of critique-I’m clearly sitting in my chair presently. In any event, your book in particular coerced a much longer and slower mediation than I usually come to expect from many photography books. Even in the advent that they are brimming with text, I can usually suss out the overreaching concept quickly and that is also due to the images inside-many photobooks being made to trigger as quickly as possible a reaction of ease of read. Your book, The Moth is the antidote to this. Can we use “slow” or perhaps “extended meditation” without enmity? Each image is inter-webbed with the others providing a very clean and tight edit in which subtle hints of repetition, but also a pastoral frequency enters into observation when regarding The Moth. Before we go much further, it is important for me to understand your way of working…How long do your projects, in particular a book take to produce? Do you start from an idea or is something that you build into like a novel with an architecture, but with need of filling it in as it were?

JS: I have been making work now for 40 years, and have resolved and published ten bodies of work as extended narratives in that time, however there are also about seven or eight works resolved which I have never yet managed to publish. Most works take four or five years, however I will have quite a few studies underway at any one time and some stretch on and on. The Rockfall studies began in 1994, and I am only now looking to bring that to some sort of conclusion. Over the last few years I have noticed that I am speeding up and am now making at least one new work during a single winter.

Each piece begins almost by accident, I set out again, with a fresh slate, each time a work has been resolved, but allow happenstance to lead the way. I photograph near where I am living, always in proximity to water – rivers, ponds, the coast. I go out walking, taking pictures and then one day something happens with a picture which suggests that I return to try to take a second photograph, if that is successful I have a new work underway!

Once I recognise this, it is a process of revisiting the site or location over and over again and building a work. The premise and nature of each work, and its eventual architecture, develop as the work is progressing, and again I am led in this by my relationship with the particular site. I want to explore new ideas within each new series, and deliberately make sure I steer in a fresh conceptual direction and search for visual and textural structure which I feel brings something new into the world.

Something I try to set out to do is make dense works. I have spent my life teaching and teaching at an Art School in Britain has been a full-time occupation, which together with my family life, has meant that I spend very little time each year photographing This is why I have developed the practice I have, working near home on long studies, slowly producing pictures and gradually finding a way to shape another piece. In 1996 I exposed twelve sheets of 10×8” film, starting on a new study of a pond, I liked four of the pictures and said to myself, “Another ten years of this and I will have finished here”, and I knew it would be a strong work because the conceptual ideas and the story evolving around the pond, and the pictures, were extraordinary.

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The Moth has been thirty-five years in the making and it has been the hardest thing I have ever done, several times I abandoned it, but I did have the glimpse of an idea which felt right and some pictures I really liked, and so I just kept pushing on, sometimes only making only a single visit to the Cornish mining area each year, but for me it has at last been worth the effort.

BF: The Moth has a narrative that is implied through the use of small pieces of text, but also your writing at the end of the book. A number of gestural abbreviations promote an aspect of history, but also of fantasy or perhaps a vigorous imagination based on the geography that you present-It is almost as if a fable wanders through your camera in which pirates and bad omens of drowned black sheep find their masses pinioned to tress and streams turn a dirty red brown in the wake of an imagined near-biblical event. Corridors and tunnels chiseled by means unknown provide escape fare for the vigilante and perhaps the photographer/wanderer alike. How often do you work with narrative like this and how does one avoid the booby traps and endless pits that a story arc can present? The myth of the English coast with its caves, pirates and warrens of inhospitable hinterland are beautiful soliloquays to land endeavored at present with a fortress attitude (perhaps in Parliament only)? Are there parables at hand in the work suggestive of larger contemporary fictions and frictions?

JS: This has been the first, and I imagine it will remain the only fictional work I will ever undertake. Finding, fabricating and telling a story through pictures made while out rambling has been an almost impossible endeavor for me. The initial idea came the moment I took the first picture of the man standing on the beach – what was he thinking as he stood there, staring out across the sea? Shortly afterwards I found both a basic form for the work – a sequence of loosely linked diptychs – and the subject, someone exiled from their homeland thinking back over what they had lost and left behind. These came from reading ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘The Seafarer’, two wonderful Anglo-Saxon poems.

However, another work developed while living and walking in the mining districts of the west of Cornwall, which became “The Red River”. I moved after that and began working around my new home in Devon and “The Raft of Carrots” came into being. I kept being drawn back to photograph along the Red River valley though and friends did suggest at the time, the late 1990’s, that I make a follow-up to the Red River. However by then I was working with large plate cameras again and had started around the pond and the rockfalls mentioned earlier, so the picture making in Cornwall fell away.

It was during the making of The Red River between 1982-1987 that I really came to appreciate how powerful, rich and complex were the mythic narratives with which our cultures build our understanding of the world around us, so coming back to your question, the notion of a fable appeals. My work is more to do with what is in our minds than it is with a physical setting. If there is a single unifying thread to my work it is in exploring how storytelling influences the ways in which we imagine the world. These stories go back and back, some are specific to a family, some specific to a culture and some are part of our human heritage. A single picture, if one allows it, can provoke an extraordinary wealth of thoughts and associations, put two together and then place them in sequence of others…….that is how The Moth is intended to work. Through the pictures I try to stir up the deep murky pool of thoughts, memories and associations and to combine them into a story.

Over the past few years I spent a lot of time with my brother who was steadily loosing his memory. We talked a lot about the past and our childhood, as that was all he could really recall, and I watched him as he searched through the dark passages of his mind for memories which he knew he had had, but which had been erased somehow, and it was this which provided the final connecting theme for the work.

BF: I think you may be more English of a photographer than Martin Parr and I tell you that this is a compliment. I sense an identity in your book that I allude to above. It is not necessarily a pro patria matter, nor is it prideful in a diseased manner. It is somehow pure and it reminds me of what I love about the English pleasantry once outside of the M25, the green and beautiful as it were, full of charm and a calming beauty, even a grandeur of landscape that stretches past the enfeebled swarm of the larger cities. And yet for all this Englishness lies a deep sadness or perhaps anxiety of being that eludes other European symptoms. Germany, for example tenders its loss towards nihilism and that was not developed in 100 years, but much longer. This heavy cloak whatever it may be persists in the observation of time passing. I feel that this compliments your work. I notice in several plates the same house, perhaps even a home that undergoes paint and changes of season. It makes me reflect on the August nature of your work and the solitude and quiet contemplation within. This use of the home somehow reminds me of the pirate ship

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JS: Well I am not sure about more or less, but I am an English photographer. I photograph here in the South West region where I was born and where I have lived most of my life. I come from what we call here a non-conformist background, which has had a significant influence on my work. My family moved from the land, like many others in the middle of the nineteenth century, to work in the smoky towns and cities of Britain, they worked hard and they prospered, they read a lot and visited regional art galleries and museums, they sang – hymns and folk songs, and when they had finished their Sunday lunch they went for walks back in the countryside, which their parents and grandparents had left behind, to look at the birds, the flowers and the trees, recognising I think that something was lost. My early years were steeped in this culture and it has left a strong impression.

I realized when I was working on The Red River in the 1980s that the pictures which stood out for me were those which had inadvertently made connections to a much wider set of references than the picture might initially suggest. Discovering these references and learning to use them, and many of them, within a work has been one of my challenges but it has also opened opportunities which I have relished. The English landscape is so layered with history, histories and stories, and then being part of the evolving history of Europe with its cave paintings, its folk tales, its classical myths, its paintings, its poems and its fictions – delving into all this and bringing it to the surface in pictures and books is something that has given me so much pleasure.

What we have not discussed here though is the weather! As a young photographer I looked to make pictures that mirrored those I admired in America and in Europe, until one day I realized what an idiot I was, because daily I was walking through a world that looked like no other, in terms of its geology, its history, its culture and of course its colour and atmosphere. From then on I have striven to make my pictures redolent of all that, and there is nowhere else that has weather quite as varied and nuanced as that in the South West of England

“It was during the making of The Red River between 1982-1987 that I really came to appreciate how powerful, rich and complex were the mythic narratives with which our cultures build our understanding of the world around us, so coming back to your question, the notion of a fable appeals”.

 

 

BF: There is another perhaps dogged persistence in my categorization of how I relate to “a” people of different origin from my own-I enjoy thinking through their history, art, culinary delights and fables, but also their stereotypes and misdemeanors. In focusing on culinary fables and history, I cannot but help notice two things in the book that I observe in a manner best suited for my imagination to take over and relate what I know of your people (having lived in the big smoke for 13 years myself). One is that I cannot escape Animal Farm in the book, which again leads me to consider political power with a deep nod to one of the most influential and important artists to come from the land, George Orwell. Second and it relates to the first, there are images of text in the book, which is not the text what is written as previously cited, but rather pictures of text found on walls, graffiti as it were to shorten the inquiry. The words are distinct and perhaps quotidian and happenstance. The first in the book is “Fuck” scratched out and re-painted for reasons unknown and the second is “English Out”, which conjoined seem kind of like a statement or order and/or residual lamentations from a Cornwall nationalist. There is a third mass of graffiti that seems rather like a love story, but can you expand on the inclusion of these text pictures? If there is a political atrophy to the espousal I have deemed fit to type, may you please also expand or detract from my fantasy therein?

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JS: First, I just love words as sounds and as objects, and words as objects in photographs.……

Walker Evans and Atget! Then these particular pictures have a sense of desperation within them, an existential howl into a gale of indifference. We have all cursed ourselves and fate for making a stupid mistake, which is the “Fuck” picture, but the scratching out and the reds, it is almost flagellation.We have all also felt the overwhelming self-pity from the loss of a love, the “Heart on the Wall” picture speaks to me of this, the wall is covered with scratchings and drawings .

“English Out” is different, it is a sentiment which would have once reverberated around the globe, but in this context it a somewhat forlorn and abject appeal. However, by placing it next to the fire picture, a huge conflagration, I wanted to suggest something more alarming and more sinister, within a political sphere, where the body politics has gone horribly wrong and wilder forces unleashed.

BF: I sense a deep gravity towards family in the book. Children’s rooms or perhaps a school and the cabinets within. The homestead, the animal pen seems to deem chores to be completed. The copper blue brick of a school wall. In a strange way, I feel this book is for someone else and not for you. The sense of fascination, pirates, history, myth., but also mining and labor. There seems to be an elegy at play in this notion of slow photography and the way in which you shoot almost meditative and persevering in a grander sum totality of being. How does a sense of place and in this case a sense of community be it family or general inundate your work? I understand mining from a Slovakian perspective, so seeing it in your work reminded me of men of a certain age here wandering cumbersomely around with gnarled hands not quite sure what to do with daylight….

JS: In the original Red River each of the seven sections has a dominant picture of a house, a home and I approach the idea of landscape from a domestic perspective. Landscapes are predominantly viewed while sitting down, as pictures on a wall or images in a book or on a television screen or from a car or train seat. In the European tradition early landscape paintings begin to appear on the walls in Vermeer paintings in the 17th century. As we became urbanised an appreciation of the countryside and its charms, of the passage of the seasons, of a romanticised notion of the valour of a day well toiled, found its expression in paintings and literature (this all goes further back to Virgil and the Georgics). I find bringing these archaic notions into a modern context rewarding. There is a deep strain in English Art amalgamating these rural preoccupations with responses to the overwhelming transformations brought about through the Industrial Revolution, William Blake being a remarkable example. The landscapes I have been walking through are lived landscapes but they are also visionary landscapes, bringing the two together in my mind and in my work is what has happened through the making of The Red River, The Raft of Carrots, The pond at Upton Pyne and The Moth.

A further dimension to this are the pictures of all the animals. I never set out to photograph these beasts, one never expects when turning a corner to come across a pig and a lamb and a goat sharing one another’s company. Slowly over the years I have accumulated these pictures, each one a rare gift. In most of them the animals are trapped or tethered or caged in some way. These are the creatures which we have brought into our fold, which they seem to me to share with us reluctantly, they look out at us aware of their state, consigned to their fate but nonetheless inside each of them there still lurks a sense of the wild, the lightest vestiges of which we still have, but it’s dangerous, it can induce a profound sense of fear.

How we live with this fear is something I think about and it gets into the work. Outside the fold, the cave, the compound, the city wall – that’s where the danger is, our homes are the source of a calm we cling onto. The Moth is for me very much about an expression of a sense of loss and longing, for something which has been given up, left behind; a home has been abandoned, far flung journeys made.

 

BF: Thank you for your time. I have to tell you that I appreciate your work very much for the contradiction to the “faster, harder, more more” industry and practice that photography perpetuates in its current discourse. Salutations aside, value is where you sometimes imagine it to be and follow it through until it exists.

JS: Thank you for your interest and the questions which have helped me think back through the book and its making. I do not look at my own work very much, but when I do I am always surprised at how a series of ones own pictures can continue to reveal new thoughts and revelations many years after their completion.

Jem Southam

The Moth

MACK

(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Jem Southam.)

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