Jem Southam is a highly influential British landscape photographer, who has been documenting incremental change in the environments around him for the past five decades. Based in the South-West of England, Southam is known for his large-format colour photographs that reveal the shifting character of the land, as forces both natural and man-made act upon it.
We spoke with Southam on the nature of landscape photography, storytelling through images, and wearing the right clothes for the job.
Photography by John Spinks.
Drake's: When you head into nature with your camera, what are you hoping to find?
Jem Southam: I have found I am drawn to particular sites which share a few things in common. One is proximity to water – ponds, rivers, streams, or the coast – first because they are always shifting and changing, and second because of their surfaces of reflected light. Well-manicured landscapes don’t interest me at all, but sites where working processes determine what is in front of the camera are of interest – mines and harbours, or those where evidence of geological transformation are clearly evident. Once I become fixated on a place I return over and over again to observe and photograph, often for many years. Making a piece of work is for me a process of distillation, the results of hundreds of hours of looking, discovering, thinking, presented in perhaps twenty pictures.
How can the medium of landscape imagery be used to tell stories?
Landscapes are stories, we just need to learn how to read them. And there are many, many stories – waiting for someone to come along, and give shape to them and find an appropriate means to tell them. Part of the fascination for me is allowing a place to reveal a complex web of narratives, through a slow and patient engagement, and as it does so I am struggling to find a form, a structure, with which to articulate some of what I have found. My works always bring texts together with the pictures – captions, short stories, essays, lists – which is a reason why books are such a rich way to bring study together.