A critical reflection into Jem Southam’s ‘Rockfalls and Ponds’

Rockfalls and Ponds’ (2010) is the greatly perfected book crafted by English artist Jem Southam. It consists of two pieces of work ‘Rockfalls’ and ‘Ponds’ which have also been displayed in an exhibition form in conjunction to ‘Rivermouths’. This widely renowned book aims to show the instability and unpredictable nature of the landscape through the exploration of time.

The book is supported by Fundación Telefónica; a corporation which aims to “connect people and institutions”. Fundación Telefónica have supported this collection of work so much so, it was presented in an exhibition alongside photographers, Bleda y Rosa’s, piece ‘Memorials’. ‘Memorials’ takes a different approach visually to Southam’s, exploring time and history through capturing “fragments of architecture”- taken from cities such as Washington and Berlin. This portrays how “memory ends up shaping the identity of these places”.

Contextually, ‘Memorials’ doesn’t differ tremendously from Southam’s ‘Rockfalls and Ponds’, which reflects the “continuity of time”. Southam is famously known for his “patient observation of changes at a single location over many months or years”, suggesting that he initiates the identity of the locations he photographs as opposed to raising visuals which will trigger memories- like Bleda y Rosa.

Sérgio Mah states that “nature is unstable and unpredictable” and when looking at nature we experience “a slice in time within a continuous process”. Southam’s vivid exploration into this idea is particularly present in the series ‘Sidmouth’ (1996-1997), where four progressive images present the gradual decay of a cliff face. The deep tones of the crumbled rock enrich the bronze tint, allowing for the decomposition to appear beautiful. Southam believes that these short sequences allow for “a critical scrutiny of the remarkable and relentless transformation of the earth’s surface”. This in turn magnifies what Southam seeks to record: the landscapes continuing to be unpredictable.

Due to the fragility of the landscape, Southam takes a non-destructive approach by “remaining still and watching intently”. This observational means of capturing allows for a decreased sense of mankind disrupting the surroundings. However through his presence at that particular place, Southam is transforming the landscape himself, which proposes the idea that mankind, as well as nature, effectively modifies the landscape. The viewer is guided through a sense of journey and stands as one with Southam through the descriptive nature of his personal experiences, which are recorded via text as well as the still photographic images. Southam’s experiences are presented in a contextually descriptive nature, informing the reader of the historical background alongside his present thoughts and ideas. This allows for an instant comparison to be drawn from what the landscape once was and what it has become, intensifying the idea of instability within the landscape.

There are many landscape photographers who try to portray the landscape in its entirety and who aim to show the lack of mankind’s presence in their photographs. Southam “observes the balance between nature and man’s intervention”, which is in contrast to Ansel Adams approach to landscape photography. Unlike Robert Adams and Stephen Shore, Ansel Adams’ work only implies the idea that “the natural world is less beautiful with human presence”. Adams looks at the natural world as though it is “infinitely varied in aspect, evanescent”, it is as though the ‘natural’ world is fading due to human presence. In this sense, his and Southam’s views juxtapose, Southam looks at the decomposing, “evanescent” world and finds that it is not just mankind who are creating this change, it is nature as well. Some may argue that Adams sees it as a fading world, yet Southam perceives it to be a transforming one.

When comparing Southam’s and Adam’s work, one could suggest that the extreme visual differences within the landscape presented in their work, is a strong representation as to how the landscape has changed. However, Adams’ photographs are not a true representation of what every landscape looked like during the 1920s-1960s, for he specifically chose “untouched” areas. On the other hand, Southam’s short sequences show how a particular place photographed over a longer period of time, allows for a clearer and more truthful visual representation of time.

Peter Henry Emerson, famously photographed the Norfolk broads, where the “soft, sympathetic shapes are delicately presented to stand in opposition to the industrialisation and urbanisation that were then transforming the economic and social fabric of life”, this in turn suggests that Emerson uses nature to represent the purity and cleanliness that mankind does not present towards the landscape. His work ‘Marsh Leaves’ (1895) contextually links to Southam’s work in that Southam moves away from mankind’s damage upon the landscape and looks into how nature itself develops. This is effectively shown in ‘Blackgang Chine’ (1994-1997), where the “rockfall itself alludes to the relentless processes of erosion”. This magnifies Southam’s relationship with time as a gradual process. ‘Blackgang Chine’ greatly shows that nature can also be destructive, specifically through erosion.

Landscape Stories’ is another book by Southam, in which a collection of his works: ‘The Pond at Upton Pyne’, ‘The Red River’ and ‘Rockfalls, Rivermouths and Ponds’ are drawn together. It includes reflective essays by Andy Grundberg and Gerry Badger. ‘Nature 1, 2, 3’ by Grundberg reflects Southam’s work and the history based around the themes and cultural context, such as: ‘renewed interest’ of the natural world and the critical nature of landscape photography. Grundberg states that landscapes are seen as celebratory because of the ‘visual beauty’ allowing to “lift the spirits and heighten the senses”, however he moves on to state that “experience has taught us that they also can be critical”. This explores Southam’s work in its entirety as his photographs are not just visually aesthetic but our knowledge of decay and erosion empowers us as viewers, enabling us to critically explore the deeper meanings.

All in all, ‘Rockfalls and Ponds’ shares highly critical photographs of landscapes developed over time. The images offer acknowledgement that nature is unforeseeable and continually altering due to natural processes such as erosion. We as viewers become increasingly aware of how brittle landscapes are and even the most peaceful landscapes have been transformed some way or another by nature itself or mankind.



Southam, J., Mah, S., Izuel, C, A. (2010) Rockfalls and Ponds. 1st edn. Madrid: Veronica

Szarkowski, J., Alinder, J. (1985) Ansel Adams: Classic Images. 1st edn. United States of America

Photo Eye Bookstore (2015) Rockfalls and Ponds [online] available from http://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=dq681 [20 April 2015]

Victoria and Albert Museum (2015) Landscape Photography by Jem Southam [online] available from http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/l/landscape-photography-jem-southam/ [20 April 2015]

WordPress (2014) Jem Southam [online] available from https://emilyharrisonhistories.wordpress.com/2014/02/23/jem-southam/ [19 April 2015]

Amazon (2015) Landscape Stories [online] available from http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1568985177?ie=UTF8&isInIframe=1&n=283155&redirect=true&ref_=dp_proddesc_0&s=books&showDetailProductDesc=1#iframe-wrapper [20 April 2015]

Southam, J., Badger, G., Grundberg, A. (2005) Landscape Stories [online] 10-14. available from https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=0APr_HRCRoAC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Gerry+Badger+jem+southam&hl=en&sa=X&ei=puk0Vcv_J6-R7AanyIDIDQ&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Gerry%20Badger%20jem%20southam&f=false [20 April 2015]

Seesaw Magazine (2004) Landscape Stories: An Interview With Jem Southam [online] available from http://seesawmagazine.com/southam_pages/southam_interview.html [20 April 2015]

Wikipedia (2015) Peter Henry Emerson [online] available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Henry_Emerson [20 April 2015]

Musee d’Orsay (2006) Peter Henry Emerson: Marsh Weeds [online] available from http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/works-in-focus/search/commentaire/commentaire_id/marsh-weeds-21854.html?no_cache=1 [20 April 2015]

Telefonica Fundacion (2015) The Mission [online] available from http://en.fundaciontelefonica.com/about-us/the-mission/ [20 April 2015]