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Jem Southam is a photographer, traditional in approach

and in his use of equipment, until recently. For forty years

he has been lugging a large format camera and a heavy

tripod across the fields in search of a subject. Once

identified, he has returned repeatedly to the same spot,

photographing it in different lights at different times of

day and in different environmental conditions. Southam is

a storyteller, weaving together a complex narrative of

human intervention, the response of the landscape and

his own interpretation of the changes he observes.

He photographs the same place over a number of years.

Winter light, winter trees are his preference and he

frequently returned after sitting for an hour or more with

just one photograph. He waits for the optimum

conditions, “atmosphere, light and colour range have to

be right, otherwise there is no point”. Up until four years

ago, Southam had resisted the digital revolution. However

he has increasingly been frustrated by the deterioration

in quality of the available film stock and analogue

printing papers. So he reluctantly started to explore the

possibilities of digital cameras and the software that goes

with them. It has not been an easy task but in the last

year the new techniques have led to some very exciting

work. Freed, literally from the weight of his heavy

cameras, he has now wholeheartedly embraced the

possibilities of digital technology, finding it ‘enormously

liberating’ that he can now take as many pictures as he

likes, ‘probably too many’. He is “led by doing”,

preferring to use the word ‘doing’ rather than ‘process’.

He is currently showing three small photographs using

these new techniques in the

Regions of Light


at Hestercombe Gardens near Taunton, which continues

until 2 July 2017. It is the first time that he has shown

his digital work and it is radically different to anything

that he has done in the past.

Taking photographs with a large format camera mounted

on a tripod facilitates the use of a very small aperture

and long exposures of a minute or longer. These

techniques and the resulting eight by ten inch negatives

lead to images which have unparalleled detail because of

the huge depth of field. In the

Bend in the river


‘A BEND IN THE RIVER’ 5 DECEMBER 2016 (Archival ink-jet print)

the crisp sharpness where every twig and branch is seen

clearly into the distance is replaced by a painterly,

atmospheric mistiness. Pushing the technology to its limit

Southam relies on sound rather than sight to move his

camera into position and shoot into the darkness. Later

he reinstitutes the detail in Photoshop or Lightroom.

Photographed very early, pre-dawn or at dusk in the

darkest hours of December just before the shortest day

of the year, these works are more than evocations of

winter. They are deeply personal. They exude sadness,

the sense of an ending. Taken on the cusp of the end of

light they become a metaphor for change. Much of

Southam’s work has been about seasons, about decay

and renewal but in these images the rotting vegetation,

the detritus and debris left by humans has gone. These

photographs of still water focus on the swans, the sound

of the wing beat, the flight, the movement from land to

water at the end of the day and the grooming drinking

feeding that is part of these creature’s daily routine.

Southam’s working practice, spending long hours waiting

and watching for the right moment, is very

contemplative. It allows his thoughts to wander and to

consider other interpretations of the scenes before him.

For him the swans at the bend in the river are part of

that continuum from Leda and Zeus, to the Finnish epic

poem Kalevala and Sibelius’s music in response to it,

through to myths from other cultures. The change in

emphasis and equipment has opened up fascinating new


Fiona Robinson

Portrait photograph by Andrew Nadolski


Until 2 July:

Hestercombe Gallery, Hestercombe

Gardens, CHIDDEN FITZPAINE, Taunton, TA2 8LG. 11am -

4pm. 01823 413923 /