Clouds Descending – Jem Southam – The Lowry 15th November 2008 - 22nd March 2009
Review by Siobhan Davis
Stratified dark cliffs rise majestically from a pebble beach. To an untrained eye, the exposed layers of strata appear to span an almost unimaginable length of time, stretching back into the primordial past. But, in truth, the cliff face of Jem Southam’s photograph has existed for only a minute portion of this imagined history. Created from the discarded waste of the iron smelting process, these manmade structures stand as monuments to the Cumbrian coast’s industrial heyday.
In 2006, the Lowry commissioned Southam to photograph a section of the north western coastline – an area much loved and visited by L. S. Lowry. Clouds Descending marks the culmination of this project. Divided into five sections, the exhibition traces the photographer’s journey south from Maryport, a coastal town on the Solway Estuary, to Morecambe Bay. During the course of the project Southam invited a number of collaborators (poet, writer, historian, art historian, ornithologist, and curator) with a shared interest in the landscape to join him and produce their own responses to the sites he visited.
Taken from above, Maryport Harbour from the old cliffs, 1 February 2007 shows the houses and flats on the harbour front, their small gardens and yards tended carefully. The plant pots and greenhouses of these private spaces contrast with the discarded waste, which litters the surrounding public areas. These individual cocoons, cared for and protected, take precedence over the wider shared environment. As the eye is guided through the buildings to the harbour mouth, the grey sky merges with the sea, dissolving the horizon line and rendering a seemingly blank future. The accompanying text reveals Southam’s difficulty in photographing Maryport – an uncertainty that seems palpable in the image, the high perspective separating the photographer from the subject. This almost uneasy relationship to Maryport, evoked by the picture, is reminiscent of the feeling of apprehension at the beginning of a journey, the uncertainty about what lies ahead.
The following section, Workington Harbour to Whitehaven, contains photographs of the imposing cliff-like structures. Slag heaps left behind by centuries of iron smelting are slowly being reclaimed and reshaped by nature. In Southam’s photographs, rock falls and caves created by the force of the elements mimic the natural environment. Compositionally, these images echo the photographer’s previous series, Rockfalls, and highlight his preoccupation with the relationship between ‘acculturated nature’ and ‘unadulterated nature’. As large prints, these photographs dominate the section, while a series of discursive smaller prints serve to contextualise and undermine the illusion of naturalness. Old pier made of slag waste on the beach at Harrington, 4 December 2007 shows a brooding dark, rocky landscape. Contrasted with the same view, shot almost a year later, the dark surface has been transformed by the tide into an unnaturally orange/ red vista, more akin to a Martian scene.
As the journey moves further south, the soaring cliffs are replaced by expanses of beach. Shallow water from a dying wave, blurring the sand and pebbles in a painterly swirl, belies the existence of the contemporary industry now residing on this stretch of coastline. A small tower topped with a white globe suggests modern technology, but its intrusion into the landscape is minimal. In a similar way, the image of Sellafield does not jar the surrounding view. In an accompanying caption, David Chandler suggests that in some ways it embellishes the landscape providing "a picturesque element in the way classical ruins gave focus and balance to a Claude or a Poussin". While acknowledging that this may not "invoke Arcadian dreams", he reminds the viewer of the importance of the plant as a major regional employer, echoing the industrial heritage of the past, and "for better or worse", constituting part of the areas "cultural identity". Even so, in light of the project’s preoccupation with visualising the impact of human activity on the natural environment, one cannot help but feel uneasy in viewing these photographs, and be left to wonder about the invisible legacy of nuclear power.
Moving beyond the Eskmeals beach, the Millom Ironworks Nature Reserve lies on the Duddon Estuary. A slag plateau left behind following the closure of the Millom works in 1968, re-inhabited by many rare flora and fauna, and demarcated as a nature reserve, this manmade environment is overshadowed in Southam’s photographs by the true natural phenomenon of the southern lakes, which, shrouded in mist, rise majestically in the background of the pictures. These images seem to represent the essence of the project. By visualising the intersection between pure nature, represented by sea and mountain, with man-made, altered and managed terrain, these photographs exemplify how the landscape is imbued with a cultural history, through both its representation and its material being.
Clouds Descending contains the essential storytelling element familiar in Southam’s work. Part of the pleasure in viewing his photographs comes from acknowledging the obvious absorption of the photographer in his subject, and recognising the time consuming process through which he builds a familiarity with the landscape to create thoughtful and thought provoking photographic sequences. Southam’s concern with time and changes to the physical environment wrought through natural and human activity are at the fore of this work. However, despite taking two years to complete, it feels rushed in places. Southam himself admits that certain areas had "fewer distinctive features to photograph" but, on reflection, acknowledges that really they just required one "to stay longer, walk, talk, wait and be patient". Perhaps time restraints for Southam are the down side of commissioned projects. This aside, I can’t help but feel that certain places along the Cumbrian coast have not seen the last of this photographer’s gaze.