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Best Books Book Reviews: The River Winter

The River Winter. Photographs by Jem Southam.
Published by MACK, 2012.
The River Winter
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

The River Winter
Photographs by Jem Southam.
MACK, 2012. Hardbound. 96 pp., 40 color illustrations, 13x10-3/4".

Jem Southam's pictures are quiet and unspectacular. They feature rural landscapes where changes happen over a period of days or months or years. Fields, ponds, rivers and rockfalls are Southam's territory, rural sites where there's nothing much to be seen, places where most photographers would move on from in search of a better (more spectacular) picture.

So you look at his pictures and wonder what the fuss is all about. And then you look at another and another, and the fuss creeps up on you. Southam is an organic photographer; he's one with the land. He's a kind photographer, the sort of man who keeps an allotment and gives his produce to his neighbours. For some reason, he seems kind and as a result his pictures are kind. Southam is a walking photographer and as you look at his pictures, you start to fall into his stride. As the places he walks in become familiar, the changes he photographs form a texture and become almost tangible. With his rockfalls, you can feel the rocks, you can imagine clambering over the beaches where he lugged his 10 by 8 camera and tripod. With the pond you smell the autumn foliage, visualise the mayflies dancing over the still body of water he photographed over the years.

The River Winter follows the same pattern. It creeps up on you and makes itself familiar. Southam's work seeks out a quiet empathy, drawing you out into a nature that is unromantic but lyrical. For The River Winter, Southam photographed the waters around the River Exe from the end of autumn in 2010 to the first signs of spring in the following year.

The River Winter, by Jem Southam. Published by MACK, 2012.

For the weather-obsessed Briton the time span is instantly identifiable. Winters in southwest England used to be mild affairs, punctuated only by what the English weatherperson calls 'wintry showers,' 'patches of frost' and 'frozen fog.' Snow was virtually unheard of and the idea that it would 'settle' was a distant dream. Then in 2008, it did settle. That means the snow stuck to the ground and got deeper and deeper. For the first time in 20 years near enough, England was covered in snow. The country came to a standstill and for the first time in their lives, children could toboggan and have snowball fights in God's Own Country. Hallelujah!

I remember that winter because the day it snowed I went sledging down Solsbury Hill (the one in the song) with my daughter and her friends. I remember the winter of 2010 because of the frigid temperatures and the ice on the roads in the 2 weeks before Christmas. I remember the snowfall and a week of snowball fights and sledging that lasted for 7 days until Boxing Day when the Big Melt began.

The River Winter, by Jem Southam. Published by MACK, 2012.

So I recognise that weather in Jem Southam's photographs. It starts with 'The Confluence of Two Streams,' taken on Halloween in Stoke Woods. The stream is a muddy trickle, its banks covered with the bronze and yellow leaves of fall. A fern dead centre in the foreground adds a primeval touch, the idea of an old landscape, one where the rhythms of the seasons have precedence over the vanities of humanity. The landscape is lyrical but not one you would necessarily want to walk in. It's organic and sodden, blocked by webs of leaves and branches. The bodies of water that appear in every photograph are alive, necessary but not attractive. There is little artifice in what Southam does, but rather a simplicity and a clarity of expression that is a wonder to behold.

The River Winter, by Jem Southam. Published by MACK, 2012.

Fall passes to winter and the first frosts appear. Weeds and reeds and teasels take on a delicate silver quality of winter and then the layer of crystals disappears. There is a thaw and the greys turn back to the dark browns and olive greens of the dank early winter. Snow comes with a vengeance on 20th December. Taddiforde Brook is shown on the first day of the snowfall, with the overhanging branches of trees laden with pristine snow. It's not quite Narnia, it's too messy for that, but it's halfway there, with the frozen brook water adding a definite chill to proceeding. Six days later and we see the brook again. The thaw is coming and the snow has thinned out. In one of the few signs of human intervention, there are snowballs on the ice and a few cracks where somebody has perhaps tried to break the ice; all part of the fun of an English winter.

The River Winter, by Jem Southam. Published by MACK, 2012.

And so the snow melts. White snow turns into brown mud, and the undergrowth has died back. Everything is dead now. Cold and wet and dead. Before sunlight and spring reappear, we see the River Winter moribund and desolate. In three pictures of 'The River Creedy at Sweetham,' all the green has gone. The cold and the snow has denuded the river bank of all life; a quiet, English catastrophe has hit the vegetation.

The River Winter, by Jem Southam. Published by MACK, 2012.

And that is what Southam's work is all about; quiet catastrophes on a local scale, with pictures that are atavistic in their execution, that take us back to a time when we walked in tune with fluctuations of the natural, unbuilt environment of which we are just a small part. His work reminds us of our place in the big scheme of things, of our mortality, our vulnerability and the fact that we are just bit players. The wonder is that he doesn't need to photograph grand panoramas to do this. Instead a muddy trickle of a river and some moderately cold weather are enough for him.—COLIN PANTALL

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2012 by:
Aaron Schuman

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport.