‘The Long White Cloud’: New Zealand by Jem Southam

Jem Southam, The Mouth of the Okarito River and the Tasman Sea, New Zealand, Autumn 2018

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‘Aeoteroa’, or ‘The Land of the Long White Cloud’, was the name given to the North Island of New Zealand when the Maori navigators first saw signs of the new land in the formations of drawn out strands of cloud spreading across the horizon. It is the dynamic at the heart of this apparition that these pictures aim to explore.The remarkably rich and varied physical profusion of landforms of New Zealand apprehended and made manifest through the momentary shifts of light and the weather. Jem Southam, 2019

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After a lifetime of making work in the South West of Britain, in 2018 Jem Southam turned his lens outwards for the very first time, documenting the varied landscapes of New Zealand. The works in the series The Long White Cloud are the result of a six-week journey through the North and South Islands, a pilgrimage of sorts to this wild and mythic land.

This latest body of work exemplifies some of the most important themes that Southam has explored throughout his forty-year career.They show his continued fascination with the subtleties of colour within the landscape, with reflective and transient visions, and of the seasons and the weather. Inspired by tales of New Zealand’s discovery by seafaring Polynesians, Southam focuses his lens on the bodies of water he found on the island. Documenting the lakes, rivers and waterfalls, he gained inspiration from the constantly shifting state of matter, from air to water to cloud and back again.

The series took Southam to Milford Sound and Mount Cook, where he documented the landscape enveloped by a huge variety of atmospheres and conditions. Mountain peaks, deep fiords and ancient rainforests are set against a backdrop of sudden squalls and creeping mists. Southam was particularly fascinated by the tumbling rain cascades and waterfalls that appear after a heavy rainfall at Milford Sound; a physical manifestation of the intricate and fragile relationship between the landscape and the weather, between the land and sky.

Southam’s work is characterised by its balance of poetry and lyricism, delicately woven throughout a documentary practice. His photographs present a sociological and physiological investigation into the varied human experiences of landscape, touching on man’s intervention in nature and the cycles of decay and renewal that influence the way that humanity interacts with its surroundings. The Long White Cloud explores notions of the sublime in relation to the varied natural landscapes of New Zealand, relating the drama of nature to the inherent mythologies of the land.

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