on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

End frame: “Below South Crofty” by Jem Southam

Mike Chisholm chooses one of his favourite images

Mike Chisholm

Mike was born in 1954 in Stevenage, a New Town 30 miles north of London. For thirty years he worked in the higher education sector as a librarian (Bristol and Southampton universities) but now concentrates on photographic and writing projects. In recent years he has exhibited his photographs and book works internationally in several solo and group shows. England and Nowhere book.


In summer 1991 I was in Reading for the day. We'd driven up from Southampton, as my partner was teaching an Open University seminar on the university campus. With us we had our first child, Tom, then less than a year old. While she engaged with eager OU students, I wheeled a pram through the suburban streets until eventually – by some uncanny homing instinct – I found myself in a bookshop. On prominent display were some copies of a photo-book, Red River, by Jem Southam. [you can read the interview with Jem or watch his talk at the Meeting of Minds Conference]

While Tom slept I thumbed through this book, and immediately fell under its spell. I had never seen any work quite like it before. This photographer seemed to look at the landscape in a more intense, but less calculated or mannered way than others and was prepared to allow into the frame the untidiness of the real world. He obviously shared my fascination with the frayed edges of the lived-in rural landscape, places that were neither wilderness nor urban edgeland. This was (to me, at any rate) seriously new work and, what's more, it was in colour.

The book seemed to give permission for a different kind of landscape photography. It seems Jem Southam stumbled across his red Cornish stream not on some carefully-planned expedition but while out walking the dog, and it's the constant return to that level of inconsequential intimacy that sustains the sequence, in the same way, that the red thread of the river – actual or implied – holds it together thematically. There's nothing grandiose going on here, though there are many hints of a banked-down sublimity glimmering through, like embers among ashes or a thinly-crusted lava-flow. 

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