Art & Photography

Mist from the Hill

Jem Southam reflects on his groundbreaking visual meditation on the industrialisation of the English landscape, The Red River, and his subsequent photography that returns to the site of his original survey

In 1982 I went to live with my brother in Camborne, a town in the west of Cornwall. For centuries it had been the centre of the tin-mining industry in the West Country, and over the course of several years I walked around the area, recording the effects of industrialisation on the landscape for a piece of work, which was published as The Red River. I finished the project and moved to Devon in 1987. It was the same month that the last tin mine in Cornwall closed, but I’ve been going back, intermittently, ever since.

The project was initially influenced by a photographic tradition that came out of the 19th century; early topographic studies made with large-plate cameras… documents of the landscape. I started off making pictures like that, and I can remember a day, quite vividly, standing on a hill, taking a photograph of a hamlet near where I was living, and feeling detached from the scene I was trying to capture. I imagined what it would be like to flow down that hill, to wend my way through the gardens and the houses. I wanted to make work that wasn’t just descriptive of the topography, but which came to describe the lives of the people who lived in these places, on the fringes of rural life; to get closer to the lived culture of the landscape.

I named the series after a stream that had been heavily polluted by the process of crushing ore, and which the project had centred around, but I wasn’t trying to make a comment about the environmental degradation of the area. I’m not a polemicist or a documentary photographer – I’m interested in the tapestry of the landscape of this unique area, the rich seam of association. My pictures describe, of course; they depict a particular part of the world – but I’m more concerned with how landscapes are something we imagine, something we construct. When we look at a photograph of a landscape, we’re looking as much at a projection of the cultural, social, historical, literary connections we have with that place, as we are with an actual physical landscape. The Red River was a description of a culture, and of a place, but also an investigation of how we carry imagery in our minds.

My pictures are never planned. I walk until there’s something that stops me in my tracks, that makes me want to take a photograph. It’s why this new body of work, The Moth, has taken 30 years to bring together. It is a slow process of accumulation that shows how these mining districts are changing, the small details: the gardens, once distinctly Cornish, changing as garden centres started to appear; the houses that have been painted different colours, where once they were all the same; the TV dishes that have been installed, the plastic windows put in.

Much has stayed the same; it still feels the same, but the story is darker. I am photographing, now, the residue of the industrial revolution in rural Britain; a return from a Blakean landscape of satanic mills to an archaic one, which evokes something of the richness of the myths, the narratives, the history of this place. I would never want to suggest this work presents a romanticised vision of England. We’re an extremely brutal, exploitative and yet inventive group of people, and the English landscape is a horror story – industrialised, chemicalised, with insect and bird populations disappearing. But it shows, with this historic undercurrent, how extraordinarily rich and complex each square metre of earth is. If we can understand that, then maybe there’s a chance we can turn things around.

Photography Jem Southam, as told to George Upton

Jem Southam’s The Moth was published by MACK in 2018

This article is taken from issue 24. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here