Exhibition: Jem Southam: Birds, Rocks, Rivers, Islands

The genre of nature writing in Britain has been going through a renaissance.

Birds, butterflies, streams, pastures, moors, beaches and seas around us fill many bookshop shelves and the pages of critical reviews. Such preoccupations have also flourished within the visual arts, in particular fine art and photography programmes in universities such as Plymouth.

Jem Southam, who was Professor of Photography at the University of Plymouth until 2018, and one of the UK’s leading photographers, has contributed enormously to this field with a series of extended photographic works which explore the social and cultural legacies of post-industrial landscapes. The Red River 1982-87 and The Pond at Upton Pyne 1996-2002, are tightly structured narrative works which have been exhibited widely.

In this exhibition he shows, for the first time, a number of smaller studies which he has been making while travelling and walking over the past few years. Roosting Wagtails looks up into a plane tree in the centre of Exeter in which large numbers of pied wagtails spend the winter nights. After the First Flood is a series of pictures made of the minutiae of materials brought down by river flood and knotted about the stems of riverbank plants. The Wintery Heavens are pictures made of the rising of winter dawn light on a pool of swans, geese and ducks on the River Exe. For Gannets and Other Seabirds he visits many of the key nesting colonies around Britain and Ireland.

As well as reflecting back on 300 years of natural history studies in Britain, the exhibition is also a demonstration of possibilities offered by the photography medium itself. The work in the exhibition was made using a wide variety of cameras and capture systems, and the prints themselves vary from tiny framed contact prints to large wall-mounted sheets.

A second iteration of the exhibition will be shown at Kestle Barton, Manaccan, Helston, Cornwall, from 13 April-2 June 2019.

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