Unknowable Memories
Golden Gate, Richard Misrach
[The Aperture Foundation]
Landscape Stories, Jem Southam
[Blind Spot/Princeton Architectural Press]
In the current [September 2005] issue of Modern Painters the novelist Siri Hustvedt discusses photography as a ‘receptacle of memory’ which can, or may, act as ‘an avenue for retrieval’. In photographic images are fixed moments [whether ‘true’ or ‘fictional’, ‘imaginary’ or ‘real’] which the photographer chooses to present to the viewer; both the photographers whose books are reviewed here choose to present sequences or sets of images which present fixed moments in series, changing scenes over time.

Photography is intriguing because it assumes we are interested in both what is being photographed, and how it is being photographed. If one is not, it is difficult to engage with the work, however well printed or reproduced that image is. As a non-photographer, who often finds what can be done with paint far more intriguing, I sometimes suspect anyone with ‘an eye’ can take photos: many painters, such as myself, use photographs for source material. [I’m not claiming them as ‘great photos’, but I can see shapes and colours and forms, things which intrigue me and I want to have a visual note of, in the world around me.]

Landscape Stories is a kind of retrospective of Jem Southam’s work. In ‘The Red River’ series, photos taken along or near the actual Red River in Cornwall, I understand his sense of shape and pattern, why he took the photos he did. His sequence is underpinned with literary allusions ­ the seven days of creation, the journey from life to death, geographical documentation ­ which allow another, intellectual, way into the work alongisde the visual. The grid of prize certificates and eggs at a village show, the line of water across the photo’s rectangle,the rich and often strangely-juxtaposed colours, all intrigue and interest me. The photos are often mysterious and allusive ­ why is there a bear in a cage in Cornwall? who inhabits this tumbledown cottage? why do these people sit on the beach when it’s cold? The photos are, let’s not mince words, beautiful: things to gaze and wonder at, full of detail and texture beyond what strikes the viewer immediately. [‘Carn Brea’, the photo of eggs and certificates, has hung over our dining table for a decade now; it continues to delight and engage me.]

Southam’s later work is hard to read in the same way. Yes, it is technically beautifully printed, and yes, it is full of detail to be engaged with at length. But why is Southam interested in rockfalls on a beach? What are we to make of photos of his city garden taken out of his kitchen window? What do we make of the images of the pond at Upton Pyne, which, for me, are only rarely [e.g. ‘May 1999’] ‘beautiful’ and ‘striking’ in any conventional way? Why should we be interested? Why does Southam assume we will spend time with his work ­ what is he trying to reveal to us?

It is this that bothers me about the work. I can read it as documentary ­ how a cliff has fallen over time into a pile of rocks on the beach, how man has intervened and changed a village pond, or I can see them as peculiar, detailed, subtle photographs of the English landscape. But I find it hard to know what Southam is bringing to us, beyond pointing a finger and saying ‘look’, ‘look at how time changes things’, ‘look at how we change things over time’, ‘look at how nothing changes’.

I suspect part of my problem with Southam’s current work is the lack of narrative, this work is not rooted in anything I have a grasp of. Southam’s world is unpopulated, though people have left traces: someone made these dew ponds, someone has tidied up the pond, someone has mowed the garden lawn, someone has put these guiding withies in the river estuary mud. These subtle interventions are all we have to go on. And the photographs are ‘quiet’ photographs; apart from some of the recent estuary mouth pictures they are not immediately striking or accessible, they don’t have any ‘wow!’ factor; they prefer to stand mute and let us work our way into them.

As a visual analogy, I think of the Giles cartoons I enjoyed as a kid. They were always full of details which were incidental to the punchline. Someone was always doing something stupid in the backround, the twins were always in a fix, grandma, if not the butt of the main joke, was drinking or asleep in a corner… I find these kind of details in Southam’s work, and they interest me, but I don’t get the punchline. Perhaps they are too subtle for me, perhaps I simply don’t see the world in the way he does? If one is concerned with the changing world, how does capturing a moment in time, make us ponder change? How do we engage with the land by looking at photos of it, not walking [or even driving] through it? How do details accrue into meaning? How do we make a big picture from so much detail?
Richard Misrach’s photos are much more arresting and obvious from the word go. They initially evoke jealousy ­ of where he lives and the view he has, for these photos are taken across the Golden Gate Bay from his porch in Berkeley. What a place, what a view! Most of each image is taken up by sky ­ bridge, water and headlands merely anchor the image, a horizontal emphasis and detail at the bottom of the picture. These photos are about light and weather, cloud and sky, night, stars, fireworks, mist, rain and fog; burning yellow, cool greys and blues, neon reds and whites, sienna, mustard, purple, silvers, black… They are stunning, and yet… they are obvious. ‘All’ Misrach has done [all!] is keep an eye on the sky and take photos of it when it looks good. Great sunset: great photo of sunset. Fantastic dawn: fantastic photo of dawn. These are nothing like Constable’s cloudscapes as the essay suggests, because there is no human intervention, simply a chemical framing device.

Let’s not knock it, this book is stunning, and I’m happy to have it, but there is no engagement with the land[or sky]scape in Misrach’s work. There is no sense of mystery or thought, just capturing the moment, which brings us back to Hustvedt, whose idea of ‘an avenue for retrieval’ could perhaps be opened up to avenues for imaginary retrieval, that is to experience what we never have experienced. I have been to the Bay Area several times, but have never seen skies and clouds as striking as those in Misrach’s photos; therefore I make an imaginary journey, invent a kind of memory.

Southam’s far more difficult and intriguing work doesn’t have the immediate attraction that Misrach’s does, but his different series add up to a far more interesting engagement with the world around us. I don’t always know what he is getting at, or what he wants us to ‘see’ in his work [or through his work?] but in the end it is a far more original, if at times quirky and bloody-minded, vision of the world, which verges on despair. Southam’s world changes whether we intervene or not, he chooses to remove us from the/his picture as rocks fall, tides rise and fall, trees and grasses grow. Southam’s Landscape Stories are knowingly failed attempts to capture the fluid and dynamic world around us, to resist and conquer time. By the time the photographer returns to take the next photo in the series, he knows the world has slipped further into the ocean; as he gets to know his chosen sites more and more, that site changes and that knowledge recedes and becomes redundant as, once again, time pulls it out of reach.

© 2005 Rupert Loydell