On Tuesday 21 March, RWA patrons, staff, and volunteers sat down for a discussion between Jem Southam and the exhibition’s co-curator, Nicholas Alfrey. As the exhibition comes to a close, Medi Jones-Williams reflects on its key themes…
Rivers, Time, Nostalgia, Roots… How have artists approached these themes? This question introduced the audience to the key concepts of the evening’s discussion, in which Jem Southam explored the inspiration behind the images that form ‘A Bend In The River’. The photo series serves as a visual diary, one in which Jem meticulously documented his surroundings from the bank of the river Exe.
The conversation flowed like a winding river, branching off into tributaries as Jem recalled the diverse sources of inspiration that punctuate the story told by this exhibition. These range from the Ladybird books of his childhood to the enigmatic figure of the swan in northern European folklore. The historical works in the exhibition provide context and insight into Jem’s approach to landscape photography, humankind’s intrinsic fascination with nature, and how formative memories shape how we see the world.
Rivers have been a common subject in art for centuries, their representation varying depending on cultural and historical context, from the Nile in ancient Egyptian visual culture, to the Yellow River in Chinese art. J.M.W. Turner, whose watercolour work ‘Ivybridge, Devonshire’ features in the exhibition, often used rivers as a compositional device to lead the viewer’s eye through a painting and suggest the movement of a journey.
The river as a journey reflects the Romantic preoccupation with the sublime power of nature and the idea of the journey as a metaphor for the human experience. Rather than journeying down the moving river Exe, Jem’s stationary approach of returning to the same bend in the river every morning allowed him to examine the minute changes to the riverbank over time.
Hung beside Turner’s painting in the exhibition is F.C. Lewis’s picturesque depiction of the very same spot along the river Exe. In the background of the etching, entitled ‘A River Scene of Brampford Speake from the Scenery of the River Exe’, the viewer can see a tranquil town which Jem carefully omitted from his shots, choosing to focus solely on the natural world of the riverbank rather than our built environment.
The conversation then turned to how temporality is reflected in the constant flow of a river. Over time, patterns in nature crystalise and routines form. For Jem, his own daily commute to the bank of the river Exe was mirrored by the arrival of a flock of swans at dawn. Although an outsider, the photographer was allowed to observe, document, and admire their morning ritual from a distance.
In the aforementioned painting of Ivybridge in Devonshire, a figure can be seen rushing across the bridge to catch a departing stagecoach. The anxiety of missing a bus, tube, or train is one that affects morning commuters across the world. This frantic moment is juxtaposed against the timeless flow of the river, which transports the viewer away from the pressures of modernity and into the painting’s idyllic setting.
This same sense of calm is captured in Jem’s photographs, which serve as a reminder to the viewer to take a moment each day to connect with the world around us, rather than being consumed by our daily routines and allowing time to slip away.
The co-curators have indulged in fond memories of their formative experiences through the inclusion of vintage prints and publications such as ‘What to Look for in Winter’. These alleviate the sensibility of the exhibition, as the display of works by a children’s book illustrator beside works of Constable and Turner flouts curatorial convention in the name of nostalgia. Illustrations produced by the fossil fuel giant Shell (which can now be seen as early examples of corporate greenwashing) show how the rise of car ownership opened up travel, making the British countryside more accessible to city-dwellers in the 20th century.
All works in the exhibition are connected through the subject matter of the British landscape and the artists’ careful attempts to capture their subject matter in a naturalistic way. Despite using a large format camera for the majority of his career, Jem detailed how embracing modern technology enabled his work to evolve. A digital camera’s ability to capture a moving image in a matter of seconds facilitated the photographs in this exhibition, such as those showing swans taking off in flight.
Digging deeper, Jem and Nicholas explored the theme of roots and how our shared histories and narratives are the fundamental threads that bind and define societies. Our subconscious link to the past can simply be tapped into when we are immersed in our natural surroundings, through the collective memory that connects us with others and ourselves across time and space.
Nature itself serves as a unifying force that connects the human race across temporal and geographic boundaries, through ecological interdependence, biodiversity, natural cycles, conservation efforts, recreation and inspiration. Recognising and appreciating our interconnectedness with nature can foster a sense of shared responsibility for its preservation and create a common bond that transcends borders and generations.
Throughout the talk, the speakers returned to the idea of theatre. Jem’s photographs capture a series of dramatic performances in action. Jem recalled arriving at the river each day just before dawn for a front row seat at the show, in which he was both actor and audience member. Despite the dimly lit atmosphere of these early morning photos we can envision daybreak pulling back the curtains of darkness and illuminating the stage. The photographs show the swans’ appearance around the bend in the river, like a nervous chorus waiting in the wings, while their delicate and graceful movements evoke imagery from the ballet Swan Lake.