Jem Southam (born 1950) is one of the most critically respected British landscape photographers working today. Celebrated for his important contribution to colour photography in Britain, Southam documents subtle changes in the landscape in relation to the passage of time.
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Rain, Milford Sound, New Zealand, Autumn 2018
Jem Southam was born in Bristol in 1950. He studied at the London College of Printing for a Higher Diploma in Creative Photography from 1969 to 1972. Beginning in the 1970s, Southam began documenting the landscape of the South West of England, patiently and thoughtfully recording changes at a single location over periods of months or years. His richly detailed works document subtle changes and transitions of the landscape, allowing Southam to explore cycles of life and death through spring and winter, and also to reveal the subtlest of human interventions in the natural landscape. His work is characterised by its balance of poetry and lyricism within a documentary practice.
Working exclusively in series, he has produced several bodies of work, including The Raft of Carrots, The Shape of Time: Rockfalls, Rivermouths, Ponds, The River – Winter, The Painter’s Pool, Upton Pyne and The Red River. Southam’s early and seminal body of work The Red River (1982-1987) followed a small stream in the West of Cornwall from source to sea, documenting the legacy of tin mining on the river’s valley and the people who live there.
His 2012 series The River – Winter investigated how the concept of winter is embedded in society’s shared imagination. The series traced the passage of a single winter, following the path of the river Exe and its tributaries in Devon. The Moth (2018), revisits sites from The Red River made almost two decades earlier. Inspired by the old English poems ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘The Seafarer’, the series moves freely between interior and exterior, from sweeping vistas to quiet, overlooked details of rural life.
After a lifetime of making work solely in the South-West of Britain, Southam’s 2018 series The Long White Cloud is the result of a six-week journey to document the landscapes of both the North and South Islands of New Zealand. The photographs in this series show his continued fascination with the subtleties of colour, with reflection and transience, and with the effects of the shifting seasons and weather on the landscape. Influenced by tales of New Zealand’s discovery by seafaring Polynesians, in The Long White Cloud, Southam focuses on the bodies of water Southam found on the island. Exploring notions of the sublime in the varied natural landscapes of New Zealand, these photographs accentuate the connections between the drama of nature to the inherent mythologies of the land.
Southam has held solo exhibitions at The Photographers Gallery, London, Tate St Ives, and The Victoria & Albert Museum, London. His work is held in many important collections, including those of the Rijksmuseum, Museum Folkwang, the Yale Centre for British Art and the The Victoria & Albert Museum. He is currently Professor of Photography at the University of Plymouth.