Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

During the Easter break I was invited down to Plymouth University to attend a symposium entitled ‘Patterns of Disclosure: The Narrative Document and the Photographic Book’, organised by David Chandler and Michael Mack. The symposium was excellent and explored the importance of the analogue book within contemporary photographic practice.

This however was not my main reason for making the exceptionally long drive from Norfolk to Plymouth. Over the Christmas period I had been corresponding with Jem Southam over twitter, discussing and exploring the ideas behind his twitter based bodies of work, St James’ Halt and it’s off shoot Still Life series.

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Jem’s previous bodies of work have all been marked by their rigorous aesthetic discipline. Using a 10”x8” field camera, Jem works with single locations over a period time, exploring changes within the landscape, both natural and man-altered. These images are then often presented as incredibly rich contact prints, forcing the viewer to engage with them on a very individual basis.

Taken from Rockfalls, Rivermouths, Ponds, by Jem Southam (2000)
Taken from Rockfalls, Rivermouths, Ponds, by Jem Southam (2000)
The Pond at Upton Pyne, Jem Southam (2001)
The Pond at Upton Pyne, Jem Southam (2001)
Painter's Pool, Jem Southam
Painter’s Pool, Jem Southam

 

For his most recent work he has embraced digital capture and has been working using an iPad to document the area around his house and allotment in the St James area of Exeter.

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While his work has always had a strong sense of place within the final images, the immediacy of the iPad and the adoption of the wandering flaneur has created a looseness within his interrogations. I would argue that it’s his most exciting image making since Raft of Carrots (1989).

Taken from Raft of Carrots, Jem Southam (1989)
Taken from Raft of Carrots, Jem Southam (1989)
Taken from Raft of Carrots, Jem Southam (1989)
Taken from Raft of Carrots, Jem Southam (1989)
Raft of Carrots, Jem Southam (1989)
Raft of Carrots, Jem Southam (1989)

Gazing on other people’s reality with curiosity, with detachment, with professionalism, the ubiquitous photographer operates as if that activity transcends class interests, as if its perspective is universal. In fact, photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle-class flâneur, whose sensibility was so accurately charted by Baudelaire. The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitring, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes… The flâneur is not attracted to the city’s official realities but to its dark seamy corners, the neglected populations—an unofficial reality behind the façade of bourgeois life that the photographer ‘apprehends,’ as a detective apprehends a criminal.”

Susan Sontag, On Photography (1979)

I have sat in meetings with photographic academics that argue whether this quote is honest or satirical. The language Sontag chooses to use, often place her texts at first glance within the realms of satire, poring scorn on the over active egos of photographers who place their medium at the pinnacle of artistic endeavour. To the outside world, many of us are simply wandering around with a camera, seemingly taking images at random. Once you strip away extremes of her language and look at the quote from a perspective of the host of photographers work that have re-embraced the large format camera since New Topographics. Choosing to explore the built landscape in a more poetic manner, the quote takes on a more sincere voice. Certainly as a photographer I recognise within myself the character that Sontag is describing, though perhaps in a quieter manner.

As a photographer predominately, at least for now, still working in film using a large format field camera, I would describe the first time I picked it up as an epiphany. Up until that point I had struggled to find a voice within my work. Using a large format camera ruins you. You find yourself becoming obsessed with the image, and digital can’t quite make up for a missing feeling. Because of this I am not one of those photographers that always carries round a camera, I don’t even own a camera phone. It got to the point that I wouldn’t even take an image if I didn’t know its end point. One of the problem with photographers and filmmakers is we tend to fetishize equipment; I like many photographers have an intense personal connection to my kit. We spend years honing our collections and finding one that works for us. Moving to something new can be difficult. It is no surprise to me that for the last image in Rob Hornstra’s An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus (2013), he chose to use a photo of his camera kit in it’s rucksack.

The contents of Rob Hornstra's camera bag, taken from An Atlas of War and
The contents of Rob Hornstra’s camera bag, taken from An Atlas of War and

Mark Power recently wrote a piece on his blog about moving to a digital system;

UK. Sunderland. Nissan car plant. (From 'Open for Business') June 2013.
UK. Sunderland. Nissan car plant.
(From ‘Open for Business’)
June 2013.

Recently, while working on the Magnum group project ‘Open for Business’ I had something of an epiphany.

I’d borrowed a Phase One camera, a remarkable piece of kit and, as all who try one must surely do, I fell instantly in love and now hanker after one passionately (… here endeth the advertisement… assuredly not part of the loan deal, in case you’re wondering).

Anyway, I was in the Nissan plant in Sunderland, the biggest car factory in Europe and reminiscent of a sort of ‘cleaned-up’ Blade Runner…  Spectacular, in other words.

Every time I pushed the shutter of the Phase One and looked at the screen I was disappointed. Each picture failed to get even close to the experience of being there.  Josef Koudelka’s infamous remark that photographers always make their best work before turning 40 began to hang heavy; it seemed I was clearly past my sell-by date, and wasted no time in telling Murray, who was assisting me, exactly this.

Later, over a beer, we reached an interesting, though perhaps obvious, conclusion.  In the past­­­ (as well as in the forseeable future, since I sadly have no means of actually buying a Phase One) I’ve always worked with film.  This means there’s a delay between the push of the shutter on location and the collection of contact sheets from the lab.  Meanwhile, the memory fades a little and the pictures somehow take over and become the experience.

This is different when using a digital camera because we see the picture immediately and inevitably compare the flat image on the screen with the multi-dimensional experience happening right in front of us.  This discrepancy is exacerbated when working in a particularly spectacular space, as I was at Nissan.  Now, we all know it’s impossible to photograph noise or smell or danger or any of the myriad sensations I felt while standing on a gantry overlooking robots assembling cars, but I was finding it hard to be logical.  I was just disappointed in myself.

The following day, when I returned to the same factory, I stopped obsessing about the screen (the one on the Phase One is terrible anyway) and instead told myself I’d look later… several days later if possible.  And it worked… now that the experience has faded the pictures aren’t so bad.  Of course, they’re nothing like the real thing because they’re just pictures.  But they’ll do.

Which reminds me: I know a couple of photographers who will let months pass before processing their films, in order to let the reality fade even more, and to further distance the pictures from time and place.  They say this gestation period helps.  I used to think they were just kidding themselves, but perhaps they had a point.

I’ve been fortunate to visit a number of spectacular locations over the years, including several monumental industrial spaces.  As an example, in 2009 I went to a ferro-alloy plant in Zestaponi, in (former Soviet) Georgia.  In terms of spectacularity (if there is such a word… and if there isn’t there should be) this was a good one.  Molten metal swung in vats above our heads and the noise was little short of deafening.  I didn’t see those pictures, made with my trusty 5×4, for at least two weeks, and when I finally did I was ready to accept they would be a pale imitation of the reality of the experience.

A Life Off-Screen, Mark Power (2013)

This is a different experience from Jem’s,  about how he felt the iPad had freed him up to experiment, without the crippling costs of film etc. He also spoke how he felt it was a natural continuation of his 10”x8” ground glass screen. The screen presents you with a large representation of the world you are trying to capture. The device itself is somewhat difficult to hold and shoot with. He also spoke of the brilliant immediacy of the image, he could go for a walk, come home and upload the images to his Twitter account. His audience were able to experience his latest images almost as soon as he shot them, no editing, raw. To come back to the earlier point we all have to find a system that works for us, part of the reason I have held off on purchasing a better digital system. While it would definitely help with the project, it wouldn’t feel the same.

Jem’s new work, while being on a new medium and curated space still contains much of his personal interests and visaul language, be it an obsession with certain locations over a period of time.

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Or based on his local football team, Exeter City.

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he also uses the 140 character caption to small sequences of images, within the larger body of work. whether that is based on the weather,

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or the number of birds he has spotted or heard on his walk

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The above image from his kitchen window is a clear connection to previous bodies of work.

Taken from Landscape Stories, Jem Southam
Taken from Landscape Stories, Jem Southam

While Jem has created a series of rules for his work, as he told me, if they are yours, then you are free to break them, alter them as you see fit. Hence the detour to Boston during a teaching engagement.

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The visual style of the Still Life images has changed over the seasons.

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various images

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After a break for a few months, Jem started posted new work again last week to correspond with the one year anniversary of the start of the project. I am really intrigued to see how it progresses and whether it will cross over into a physical exhibition, if not then keep following him on twitter.

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