Museum On Tour, 13 February 2019: Exploring Jem Southam’s work
by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer
An exhibition of work by photographer Jem Southam is currently on display in the Levinsky Gallery at the University of Plymouth. It’s the latest in a series of partnership exhibitions between The Arts Institute and The Box.
Southam’s work was displayed in the City Museum and Art Gallery in 2008 as part of a touring exhibition from the V&A called ‘Questions of Landscape’. The idea of holding a show dedicated to his work has been on our minds ever since so we’re delighted to have finally realised this as part of our continued partnership. The Levinsky Gallery is a great space for an exhibition like this – as the images in today’s post show.
Born in Bristol in 1950, Southam is one of the UK’s leading photographers. According to the V&A’s website:
“He is renowned for his series of colour landscape photographs, beginning in the 1970s and continuing until the present. His trademark is the patient observation of changes at a single location over many months or years. Southam’s subjects are predominately situated in the South West of England where he lives and works. He observes the balance between nature and man’s intervention and traces cycles of decay and renewal. His work combines topographical observation with other references: personal, cultural, political, scientific, literary and psychological.”
Over the last few years the genre of nature writing has been going through a bit of a renaissance. Birds, butterflies, streams, pastures, moors, beaches and seas fill many bookshop shelves. Similar subjects have also flourished within the visual arts, particularly in fine art and photography. Southam, who was Professor of Photography at the University of Plymouth until last year, has contributed greatly to this field.
The amount of coverage currently (and justifiably) being given to the impact humans are having on the environment also makes his works extremely topical – revealing subtle changes and developments in the landscape, peoples’ influence on the natural world and, in turn, the effect the environment has on people.
As the title suggests, in this exhibition Southam’s main preoccupations are ‘Birds, Rocks, Rivers, Islands’. You can see works he has produced using a variety of different cameras and capture systems as well as a variety of prints – from large wall-mounted works to small contact prints.
During this career Southam has had solo exhibitions in the UK, Belgium, Australia, America and Spain. He’s also featured in group exhibitions in the UK, America, France, Germany, Poland, Spain and Holland.
His work is currently held in the collections of the V&A, the Government Art Collection, the Arts Council Collection as well as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Museum Folkswang in Dusseldorf, the Yale Centre for British Art in New Haven and the Cleveland Museum of Art, to name just a few.
In the UK, he’s represented by the Robert Mann Gallery. You can check out his biography on their website here.
Here’s a link to a great interview with Jem Southam from 2013 on the On Landscape website. If you have the time it’s a detailed and really interesting read.
The interview includes the following quote from Jem Southam. It summarises his approach to his work brilliantly:
“When I look back over the various bodies of work I have made, over the years and consider where they have been made it is clear that I have a fascination with locations where the processes that transform landscape are very evident. Several of them are sites of large scale industrial activity – frequently mining or extraction processes; tin-mining through ‘The Red River’, manganese mining at Upton Pyne in Devon, the china clay industries of St Austell and coal, iron and smelting along the Cumbria coast.
What interests me here are that landscapes which are formed by these processes are completely unplanned – they are the result of the technologies required to do the particular actions required. I find these places much more interesting than planned landscapes, indeed the worst anyone could ask me to do would be to photograph a highly planned and controlled environment.”
In a recent talk that took place in the Levinsky Gallery, Southam described himself as an ‘observer and recorder’ and discussed how the work he makes enables him to forge ‘a real connection with the world’. He talked about how he strives to keep things ‘new and refreshing through the use of different photographic processes’ and how he thinks photography ‘reveals things that our eyes and minds don’t see’.
All these things are evident in the ‘Jem Southam; Birds, Rocks, Rivers, Islands’ exhibition, which is on display until 16 March. Gallery opening hours are 10am to 5pm Monday to Friday and 11am to 4pm Saturday and admission is free.
If you’re interested, a few more events are set to take place while the exhibition remains on display. Find out more here.