Jem Southam ‘River Exe at Brampford Speke, 21st January 2011’
When talking about Pop and Rock it is easy to use ‘epic’ in the pejorative sense. Usually the word acts as a signifier of the overblown, the overdone and the over long. Often it is a signpost that points a direction that the listener is advised not to take.
To call Wild Swans records epic then is potentially hazardous, yet essentially true. It is to use the word in the decidedly non-pejorative sense; is to signpost a direction that the listener is most assuredly advised to explore. It is also to redefine the essence of what we mean by epic, for Wild Swans records are certainly never overblown, overdone or overlong (and of course there is a distinction between time elapsed and perceived length). ‘The Revolutionary Spirit’ is the Wild Swans' song that perhaps reset those definitions way back in 1982, but that same spirit can be found in every one of their myriad incarnations and re-incarnations in the years since. It is a spirit that touches the heart with piercing intensity; that speaks with genuine warmth and compassionate ferocity.
‘When Time Stood Still’, from their ‘Coldest Winter of 100 Years’ album sneaks in at under two and a half minutes yet every moment in it causes heart and soul to stir and swell. If last week we spoke of how difficult it is to include explicit reference to songs and records in one’s own art and make it feel natural, then in ‘When Time Stood Still’ Paul Simpson offers a masterclass on how to carry it off with aplomb. In some ways like ‘Tallulah’, ‘When Time Stood Still’ is a song about the transformative power of song; about the way in which our roots can be found in the artefacts that touched us at our most impressionable and vulnerable moments. For Simpson these centre on two verses of connected records, starting with ‘Raw Power’, ‘Sunburst Finish’, ‘Transformer’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’ before moving into ‘Live At The Witch Trials’, ‘Armalite Rifles’, ‘Horses’ and ‘Little Johnny Jewel’. These are references unapologetically collected and celebrated. Like my own 50 songs and artworks they may not tell the whole story but they capture the essence. They are the core of discovery, for better or worse.
‘When Time Stood Still’ is also a song about age and the pull of home; the return to the centre (physical and symbolic) that our lives spin around. For Simpson this is Liverpool, but instead of romanticising the city in idealised terms he deals in realist details. The “M58 is slick with rain”; “the river runs the colour of mud”; his car’s “tyres are bald” with “a brake light out”. This is no tale of the triumphant return of a prodigal son and it is all the better for it.
‘When Time Stood Still’ then celebrates beginnings and acknowledges age and endings in a remarkably succinct, poetically realist style. It is, frankly and simply, epic.
If ‘When Time Stood Still’ is in part a song about the nature of Home then Jem Southam’s photographs around the Exe valley are certainly, for me, a reverberation of that same theme.
On a recent visit to the island of Arran in the Firth of Clyde I met up with friends with whom I last shared a cycling adventure on the island some 32 years previously. What struck me, apart from the lasting value of connections rooted in that adolescent maelstrom of moment and emotion, were our conversations about sense of place and notions of home. For some, the pull of Scotland as a geographical and physiological place was compelling, for others it was the realisation that the vision of somewhere ‘other’ was what had most meaning. In other words, perhaps notions of ‘home’ are transitory and illusory, for better or for worse. Personally though, from the moment I first visited Devon some 30 years ago, it immediately felt more like home than anywhere else had ever done. It still does.
Jem Southam’s photographs start to make sense of the reasons for this, and much of that is to do with the fact that his work carries with it a sense of the hidden. “Keep the mystery caged” is a favourite phrase of my friend Kevin Pearce and it is a great idea to carry with you. Certainly there are secrets about why I feel at home in Devon that I do not fully understand. And if that sounds tantalisingly close to being Totnes bunkum or Hippy hocus pocus then so be it. Southam’s photographs do not obviously tap into the weary Hippy claptrap you can find in Devon yet they are assuredly spiritual and certainly filled with earthy mystic magic. Normally this would be enough to make me recoil in horror, and the fact that I do not do so with Southam’s photographs is rooted, I believe, in the quietness of their execution. The photographs feel like gentle evocations of private rumination; a communion with the Earth that does not feel the need to make a song and a dance.
Landscape photographs, or at the very least photographs of landscape, are perhaps the most difficult to make successful. Perhaps this is just me, but I have seen innumerable landscape images that are by turns banal, cliched and/or over-poweringly post-processed to the point of being fanciful fantasy illustrations. Jem Southam’s photographs are none of these things. Even (especially?) when his choice of subject matter is apparently devoid of interest (a china clay open cast mine, anyone?) his photograph instills it with a otherworldly sense of presence and the suggestion of deeper meaning.
The photographs in 'The River: Winter' carry the deeper meanings that are tied up in the whole notion of the passing of a season, with the multiple metaphors of climatic cycles that might come to mind. Richard Hamblyn writes about this eloquently in his accompanying essay, placing Southam’s work expertly within the wider historical context. But whilst this cultural contextualisation is valuable I cannot help but think it misses one crucial element that makes the photographs so wonderful, and that is that they are simply (and so by implication anything but) beautiful images that capture the essence of place. I say this because I know where almost all of these photographs were made and remember the rare abundant snowfall that came in December of 2010. Many of the places in the photographs are within a ten minute walk from my front door. Some are places I pass on a daily basis. I have been in these places on similar days; have seen them in similar lights. The closing photograph in the work (River Exe near Brampford Speke, 28th March 2011) is a spot on the river where I have stood and watched swans drift past; where I have skimmed stones and where I have hurt my knee ducking under branches. Southam's photograph certainly makes me think of all these things, and in doing so fulfils the key need of being a vessel for personal memory and meaning. More than this though, the photograph, like all of those in the body of work, contains within its tones and textures a quality that makes it both simultaneously hyper-real and magically illusory.
Simply (and so by implication anything but) it is Home.