Jem Southam

Les Petites Dalles


Not on display

Jem Southam born 1950
Photograph, C-print on paper
Image: 915 × 1143 mm
Presented by Michael G and C Jane Wilson (Tate Americas Foundation) 2017, accessioned 2021


Les Petites Dalles 2006 is a large-scale colour photograph taken at Les Petites Dalles, a small seaside resort known for its impressive cliffs, on the coast of Normandy in northern France. The photograph is from a series in which Southam documented rockfalls and erosion along the Normandy coast (see also, Yport, April 2006, Tate P15415, Senneville-sur-Fécamp, February 2006, Tate P15417, and Les Petites Dalles, November 2006, Tate P15416). These photographs of crumbling cliffs and boulders are careful studies of the effects of time on this stretch of coast. The texture, colours and structures of the cliff face and rocks are captured in great detail and in many of the images, such as this one, fill the composition entirely. Southam invites the viewer to consider the tension between the immediacy of photography and the slow, geological time of his chosen subject matter.

Southam’s pictures are generally the result of long, regular walks, mostly in the countryside of South West 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, usually working in series and taking photographs of specific sites, which he progressively 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 place, a feeling of kinship with it, developed through visits and acquired knowledge, often through conversations with people who live in the area. Southam has explained, ‘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 18 April 2017.)

Much of Southam’s practice takes place in proximity to water, as in this photograph and others in Tate’s collection (see, for example, Rye Harbour, River Rother, 1 April 1999, Tate P15414, or Clevedon Blind Yeo, 16 January 2000, Tate P15413). Aware of the complexity of such landscapes, picturesque and yet marked with the traces of human intervention and natural erosion, Southam sees the land as 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.)

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 (1930–2008) and Paul Graham (born 1956), who rejected the traditional practice of representing the natural landscape as idyllic and chose instead to focus on its constructed status.

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.
Aaron Schuman, ‘Landscape Stories: An Interview with Jem Southam’, SeeSaw, February 2005, <>, accessed 18 April 2017.

Helen Delaney and Elena Crippa
April 2017

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