Jem Southam - The Red River

The Red River - Jem Southam, 1989, Cornerhouse

This is not my first copy of The Red River, technically. The last copy I bought for seven pounds disappeared into the void that was the postal system at the height of the pandemic. In all honesty that was my main motivator for chasing down a copy a year later, and when I opened the parcel this morning I realised I had absolutely no idea what this book was about.

The Red River documents an area of Cornwall that surrounds a barely documented river, stained red with clay leached out of the earth. A meandering and mysterious survey, much more on the side of poetry than reportage - notably so given the era of documentary photography that this work was made in. 

For many people, myself included, their knowledge of Southam’s work begins and ends with The River Winter. In fact the very first photograph I saw in a classroom was the River Exe at Bickleigh, 6 December 2010. The Laura Pannack photograph that followed it in the slideshow made me think Southam was actually a thirty year old woman for longer than I care to admit. This singular focus on The River Winter has resulted in a warped and narrow view of the complex artist that Southam is. Despite the nominative similarities, The Red River needs to be considered in it’s isolation, or as a precursor to The Moth which picks this story up again thirty years later. 

The colour palette of the work is the most immediately striking feature, a surreally vivid yet muted look that is rare outside of Paul Graham’s early work. This palette only heightens the already fantastical colours that Southam finds as he explores this landscape, the stained river is not biblical, rather otherworldly. Rust coursing through the hills. The perspective provided by the view camera is strange here, it feels as if Southam is deliberately working against the objectivity that can be the default with such tools. He leans into a snapshot aesthetic at times, although the acuity of his images betray any real feeling of casual photography, instead the looseness in framing conveys the unique tiredness one feels trudging through the British countryside with a heavy camera and tripod slung over ones shoulder. Southam is undoubtedly a visitor to these parts, as he photographs the pigs (a motif which recurs almost as often as the river itself), he conveys the uneasiness that many of us have surely felt, when in a strange field and discovering the animal which resides there neither sure how the other will react. This same uneasiness can be felt when regarding the houses and towns.

When designing this book Southam chose to divide the photographs into chapters, not chronologically or geographically but based on myths regarding our understanding of the landscape. This chaptering of the work is one of the few features that feel dated, as at least in my experience, dividing work this formally has largely been eschewed as more photographers rely on form and image based sequencing for structure. The frequent and perhaps superfluous chapter breaks seem to stop you from sinking fully into the landscape that unfolds between the pages, although maybe that’s the point? Despite containing almost fifty images, the book feels extremely brief. It’s unsurprising that Southam has chosen to continue photographing this area, and it’s wider surroundings during the thirty years that have passed since he published this book. In his more recent publication Southam appears to have replaced himself as storyteller with an unnamed and fictitious narrator, seemingly another step away from traditional documentary and further into the poetic.

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