Jem Southam

Brampford Speke

1998, printed 2003

Jem Southam born 1950
Photograph, C-print on paper
Image: 1047 × 1253 mm
Presented by Michael and Jane Wilson in honour of Sir Nicholas Serota (Tate Americas Foundation) 2017, accessioned 2021


Brampford Speke 1998 and its companion piece Brampford Speke 1996 (Tate L03980) are large-scale colour photographs taken in the small rural village of Brampford Speke, north of Exeter in Devon, in the South West of England. Southam used a large-format view camera to produce 8 x 10 inch (205 x 255 mm) negatives that record a high level of detail. The images have been printed to a dimension of 800 x 1016 millimetres in editions of six, of which Tate’s copies are number one. The two photographs, taken two years apart, depict the same subject, although shot from different angles and in different seasons. The composition in both is nearly identical: it is divided roughly in half by the placing of the horizon across the middle of the frame. In the distance, the hilly landscape is partially obscured by lines of trees, while in the foreground a dew pond sits in a hollow in a field, centred in the middle of the image. In both photographs, the sky is of an even, pale grey and the light is soft. Brampford Speke 1998 was most likely taken in winter time, as the trees in the background are mostly bare, the grass is green, short and damp and the pond is filled with water. In the foreground, in the proximity of the pond, the grass is uneven and muddy, as if it has been trampled. By contrast, Brampford Speke 1996 was presumably taken in spring or summer time, as the trees are leafy, the field is full of wild flowers and the depression of the pond is filled with long grass.

A dew pond is an artificial pond intended to collected rainwater, usually used where a natural supply of surface water is not readily available. For centuries if not millennia, dew ponds have been constructed for watering livestock, inscribing human engineering into the natural landscape. At the same time, by virtue of their small scale and the traditional methods of construction employed, they at least partially merge with the surrounding landscape. Southam’s photographs, taken in series over several years, chart the subtle balance between natural processes and human intervention and the cycles of decay and renewal. Habitually using a large-format plate camera, Southam photographs the ever-changing aspects of the English landscape. His images reveal his ongoing fascination with the landscape of the South West of England, where he lives and works. These images – and those taken at Upton Pyne, a nearby Devonshire village (see Tate L03982–L03985) – reflect his trademark approach, in the patient observation of changes at a single location over an extended period of time.

Southam’s photography is at least partially indebted to the work of American photographer William Eggleston (born 1939), in the decision to abandon black and white in favour of colour photography, experimenting with different materials and techniques in order to render colour in a deliberate way. His work also relates to that of other British artists working in colour photography in the 1980s, such as Keith Arnatt and Paul Graham, who rejected the traditional practice of representing the natural landscape as idyllic choosing instead to focus on its constructed status. Southam’s pictures are mostly the result of long, regular walks in the countryside of southwest England. His first walks, in the mid-1970s, were partly inspired by the work of the Land artist Richard Long (born 1945), as well as by the writing of the poet and novelist Laurie Lee (1914–1997) who, in Cider with Rosie (1959), chronicles traditional rural life in an English village. Since then, Southam has continued to experience the English landscape in a slow way, mostly working in series and taking photographs of specific sites, which he gradually becomes attached to, over a number of years. The gradually assembled body of work is a response to a slow absorption and intimate knowledge of the site, a feeling of kinship with it, developed through visits and acquired knowledge, often through conversations with people who live in the area. In Southam’s words: ‘My overall artistic intentions are to make work that explores how our history, our memory, and our systems of knowledge combine to influence our responses to the places we inhabit, visit, create, and dream of.’ (Quoted in Schuman 2005, accessed August 2014.)

His practice has involved making extended studies of selected sites, often in proximity to water. Aware of the complexity of those landscapes, picturesque and yet inscribed with the traces of human construction and destruction, the land is to the artist the site of inscription of complex negotiations not just between man and nature, but between individuals’ contrasting desires and the different facets and cycles of nature. Yet his depiction of human interventions is mostly subtle and oblique. Southam has stated: ‘I eschew grandeur for the sake of it, preferring to revel in a subtler scale and history. But there’s still an epic history to be told, which exists whenever humans have made their homes.’ (Ibid.)

Further reading
Gerry Badger, ‘Some Stories in Search of an Ending, The Narrative Landscapes of Jem Southam’, in Gerry Badger, Andy Grundberg and Jem Southam, Landscape Stories: Jem Southam, Princeton 2005, n.p., illustrated.
Aaron Schuman, ‘Landscape Stories: An Interview with Jem Southam’, SeeSaw, February 2005, <>, accessed 27 August 2014.

Elena Crippa
August 2014

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