New York

Jem Southam

Robert Mann Gallery

The simple yet compelling concept behind this quiet show of several series of photographs matched a sense of modesty in the images themselves. Bristol-born photographer Jem Southam visits rural sites, mainly in the south of England, several times over the course of months or years and shoots large-format images from about the same spot to document the natural and man-made changes that have taken place. In “Rivermouths,” 1996–2000, a coastline erodes; in “Rockfalls,” 1994–2000, a cliff face crumbles; and in “Ponds,” 1996–2000, a dew pond fills out. The subdued, rather traditionally composed landscapes are also undeniably romantic, though they provoke less a powerful longing for distant havens than a sort of dry prickle of backyard environmentalism. In more sensitive viewers, they may also trigger a satisfying sense of the long nights and days during which these developments take place in infinitesimal and silent stages, as the obscure rocks and moors patiently await the return of their regular guest and surely their only chronicler.

Southam’s series “Upton Pyne,” 1996–2001, has a bit more bite. 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.

Southam’s project is reminiscent of that of fellow Brit Richard Long, whose photographs document a moment in a carefully planned, very long walk. But Southam may be closer in sensibility and method to Robert Smithson, whose photographs of New Jersey captured the manufactured landscape over time. Rather than the progressive entropy that Smithson found wherever he looked, Southam discovers erratic cycles of construction and modification that might lead to the focusing of energy just as easily as its dissipation. By taking a serial approach, Southam captures the non-site that is an unremarkable backyard in Upton Pyne without aestheticizing or fetishizing it; he brings the photographs’ testimony into the gallery without losing the utter plainness of the site itself. Here there is detail but no glorification. And the serial form preserves a sense of continuity that defies what’s usually implicit in the photographic medium: the absence of the referent and the lost moment of its capture.

“One pebble moving one foot in two million years is enough action to keep me really excited,” said Smithson in 1970. Southam is undoubtedly of the same mind. The environmentalist romantic who created these documentary works also seems to rely on a distanced, conscientious patience, and this serves his project well.

Nell McClister