Capturing time and hope in landscape photography

On a gorgeous fall afternoon while visiting the old school, I stopped by the Yale Center for British Art. I had read about Jem Southam’s Upton Pyne exhibit last week in the New York Times: Capturing a Landscape That Won’t Stand Still.

Southam is a noted landscape photographer, in the tradition of Constable and Wordsorth. Here’s how the Upton Pyne project was described in Art Forum when earlier it was at the Robert Mann gallery:

Bicycling through the countryside northwest of Exeter one day in the summer of 1996, Southam happened upon a brackish pond choked with algae and trash located behind someone’s house–and knew he had found his next subject. After photographing it in this state, he returned that December to encounter an entirely different scene: a much larger body of clear water now surrounded by tufts of planted greenery. On the visits that ensued over the next few years, Southam captured the area’s various stages of development: Tall grasses appear, as well as a little boat; finally the pond is practically a lake, met and encircled by the sweeping lawn of the house. The final shot of the series unexpectedly shows a wide swath of muddy farmyard. Evidently the pond was plowed under. 


I had no idea just how powerful the work would prove to be in person.

There were 21 photographs. Large. Still. Disturbing. As the eyes move from one photograph to another, details are lost. Time moves on. Yet there’s hope…planted in newly emerging details.

Initially the volunteer restorer of the pond doesn’t come through. According to Southam: “the bloke up the road had run off with the pond-caretaker’s wife and he was using the fixing of the pond to try to fix up his life. It didn’t work. He was quite inept, and the pond was a mess, after three years.” All’s not lost, however. Miraculously, the pond comes back at the hands of a couple of different villagers. Herons and kingfishers return to what was once a mining dump.

Jem Southam: Upton Pyne is an invitation to “re-examine notions of meaning and beauty in the landscape.” In that it’s brilliant. Non-chronological presentation and lack of signage for each photo or overall guidance by the curator were seen by some as diminishing the impact of the exhibit. Perhaps. I was blown away by the sheer size, stillness and detail of the compositions.

The exhibit is open until the end of the year.