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Clouds Descending Jem Southam


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Jem Southam River Ellen, Maryport 28 December 2006


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Clouds Descending Jem Southam Published to accompany the exhibition at The Lowry 15 November 2008– 22 March 2009 Exhibition curator: Mark Doyle Catalogue and exhibition design: Alan Ward @ www.axisgraphicdesign.co.uk Catalogue print: Gutenberg, Malta Published by the Lowry Press, The Lowry, Pier 8 Salford Quays m50 3az www.thelowry.com

First published 2008 © The Lowry Centre Limited and individual authors 2008 © Map from ‘The Geology of the Lake District’ edited by F. Mosely, 1978, Yorkshire Geological Society (p8). isbn 978-1-902970-35-6 Publication supported by:

Endpapers Front: Jem Southam View across Morecambe Bay from Rampside 22 July 2008 Back: Jem Southam View across Morecambe Bay from Rampside 20 February 2008


Contents

Introduction Mark Doyle

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‘Men with Dogs’ and other titles Jem Southam

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Written with a Slate Pencil on a Stone, on the Side of the Mountain of Black Comb William Wordsworth

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Overlooked from Black Combe Nicholas Alfrey

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Light, space and dark materials: walking with a landscape photographer David Chandler

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Bird Notes Matthew Southam

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Particles Harriet Tarlo

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On Metal Beach Richard Hamblyn

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Contributors

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So you have gone to Maryport! I am very glad for that is what you wanted, I think – You have gone to a wonderful place. Nowhere else like it – Desolation & Decay – I was in it a few weeks ago with a friend & he was simply fascinated – the slagheaps on the beach – the old broken down harbour – that church you spoke of & the steps – my friend was simply fascinated – I couldn’t drag him away from it – But to be frank I wouldn’t like to live there… LS Lowry in a letter to his friend Geoffrey Bennett (7 October 1953)


LS Lowry Boats 1956 Pencil The Lowry Collection, Salford


Introduction

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Lowry spent a good deal of time observing and recording the industrial landscapes and harbour towns along the Cumbrian coast. In 2006 we invited photographer Jem Southam to make his own response to the coastline Lowry loved so much. Over two years, Jem retraced some of Lowry’s steps, in the process discovering his own places of interest. His journey took him from Maryport to Morecambe Bay and resulted in a remarkable series of images focusing on Cumbria’s long and significant industrial past. Along the way Jem invited a number of collaborators – all sharing a specialist interest in the landscape – to walk with him and make their own response to some of the sites he was drawn to. Published to accompany the exhibition at The Lowry, this book contains an introductory essay by Jem and contributions by each of the collaborators. The Lowry would like to thank The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and The University of Plymouth for generously supporting the research and development stages of this project. Mark Doyle Curator (Special Exhibitions) at The Lowry


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From ‘The Geology of the Lake District’ edited by F. Mosely and published in 1978 by the Yorkshire Geological Society. The map has on it a small text which reads ‘Drawn largely from published and unpublished maps of the Institute of Geological Sciences, but incorporating information from contributors to this volume.’


‘Men with Dogs’ and other titles Jem Southam 11

It started with maps, mental maps at first. My mental map of the Cumbrian coast consisted of a simple bulging line, from the Solway Firth in the north to Barrow a long way (but how far?) further south – Sellafield was somewhere in the middle but otherwise it was a complete blank. The Isle of Man was out to sea and the Lakes to the right. Then later it was the Ordinance Survey Explorer maps – orange, large scale, masses of information, lines of all weights, marks and symbols, areas of colour and words and names: Maryport, Siddick Windcluster, Cloffocks, Jetty, The Howe, Quarry (Aggregates), Breakwater, Moss Bay, Mud, Sand... And all of this sitting at home, at the table, on the sofa – in Exeter 350 miles away – wondering, imagining, and trying to plan. It was a long slog, an exhausting first drive to St Bees, arriving at dusk in a caravan park next to the beach. We had come for Christmas, ‘Christmas in a caravan on the coast near Sellafield’ we had been telling friends. During the following short days we visited Maryport, Workington, Nethertown, Seascale, and on a wet day, inland to Wast Water. Slowly some parts of the map began to get lightly drawn in and at Maryport I photographed the pier and at Nethertown a pile of concrete railway sleepers tumbling down the embankment – what were they for and what strange impulse led to them being dumped in such a way? Gradually a first idea the title for the work emerged – ‘Coastal Structures’, a collection of natural and manmade sculptural manifestations along the Cumbrian Coast – piers, walls, groins, beaches, rivermouths, cliffs... It was already clear that my normal approach to making a series of pictures, finding and fastening on to


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a single location, revisiting it for years, was not going to work here at such a long distance from work and home. I was never going to be able to make the necessary intense connection. So instead, I planned to find sites along the coast and make occasional visits depending on how much they interested me and on how successful the pictures were. The following year the visits were made alone and I noticed something happening that I first encountered when photographing on the Sunderland coast a few years previously – conversations with men with dogs. Most of the photographs I was making in Cumbria were at locations away from where people seemed to walk – either I just went further off or the places themselves were not conventionally attractive or hospitable – but occasionally a man with one or more dogs would appear and stop to ask what I was doing. This was not at all surprising as I was usually up a ladder with a large old -fashioned camera stuck to the top of a high tripod. The conversations followed a similar pattern. Once I had explained what I was doing and answered technical questions about the camera and the processes, they would then become enthused with telling me about their lives and what they knew of the area. These conversations shifted the whole emphasis of what I was doing and I came to realise how fortunate I was to have these conversations with a group of remarkable men. They were mostly in their 50s, 60s and 70s and were highly skilled workers from the heavy industries of the area – coal mining, iron-smelting, steel production – now all shut down, and many of them had been out of work for years. They had grown up and played along this coast. They had worked, most of them, for industries that had shaped the coast, and their knowledge of the area and much of its history was based on a lifetime’s personal experience and local oral history.


So at Workington Harbour I heard about the decline of the steel works; under the slag cliffs a few miles away about their creation over the centuries from the molten clinker waste of the ironworks; at Parton about the brewery, the tannery, the coalmines and the smelting works; at Haverigg about how the huge shingle bank had formed in a single lifetime; at Askam about the Second World War target practice in the estuary; at Dunnerholme about the metal poles still stuck in the beach to break wings of a potential invasion by gliders during the war; and on Walney Island (from a man walking out to Piel Island in search of cockles, who had only a year or so ago lost his brother-in-law and nephew to the incoming tide) about how to navigate safely across the sands. Much else was shared during these talks and after a year, thanks to them and the walks I was undertaking, my ‘map’ of the coast had changed from a graphic sheet to a much more complex matrix formed of marks, stories and narratives, experience and, of course, the pictures I was slowly accumulating. During the second year the project took another twist due to the series of walks I began to undertake with a series of artists and writers. My landscape projects are usually the result of solitary visits and later, after the photographs are completed, I collaborate with one or two writers to present the finished work in book and exhibition. However, thanks to the generosity of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, I was able to undertake some visits in the company of others. I asked a varied group, all of whom shared an enthusiasm for the landscape informed by their particular fields of knowledge and expertise. So with Harriet Tarlo I walked first from Askam-in Furness to the limestone outcrop of Dunnerholme. Along the way she was scrutinised the tide-line, drawing my attention to different plants and the many bricks with

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LS Lowry The Lake 1937 Oil on canvas The Lowry Collection, Salford

Lowry’s vision of the industrial landscape was formed by views such as this of the River Irwell, winding its way through Salford and Manchester under a toxic sky. Cumbrian industrial towns such as Maryport and Workington must have held a similar appeal. Structures such as wooden piers, sheds, poles and chimneys also feature in many of Jem’s pictures along the coast. Lindsay Brooks


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their place of origin molded into their side. During the two days we spent together her notebook steadily filled with single words, descriptions of moments, thoughts and views, intense visions of the natural world, and segments of dialogue. With Nick Alfrey and Richard Hamblyn I marched one evening along a track through the Walney Bird Sanctuary, the three of us waving above our heads bamboo poles with feathers tied to the top – “guaranteed to deter attacks from 10,000 nesting Black Backed Gulls on the reserve.” Throughout that trip we looked both up and down, to the ever changing vista of the clouds, the histories and nomenclature of which Richard kept us regularly informed, and at the astonishing material at our feet. With them I discussed a further idea for a title – ‘Industrial Geology’. This notion, found in the writings of Robert Smithson, seemed so right when referring to the long area between Maryport and Whitehaven and both sides of the Duddon Estuary. Throughout the days we were together Nick was quietly mulling over the connotations of the phrase ‘geographical Labourer’ which he had recalled from a poem by Wordsworth believed to be written at the top of Black Combe. With David Chandler I was struck by his psychological response to certain stretches of beach. He seemed to have a way of opening his imagination to subtle nuances of pending threat and building, like the cliffs we walked under, layer upon layer of mental imposition that somehow fed into my picture-making. My brother, Math, was there as someone with whom I had often walked, but also because as he walks he observes and comments on incidents and patterns of bird behavior and other natural history details that he alone seems to notice. When walking under the slag cliffs at Moss Bay he suddenly commented, “No birds!” The result no doubt of how little food there was growing on


this mineral and chemical beach. With him though the real delight was at Ravenglass where I put my cameras aside and just made a three hour circular walk in a place I had not managed to make a picture, finding 48 different species of birds within a short radius of the village. Throughout this project I was thinking about Lowry, his work and his relationship with the Cumbrian coast. So, as a final collaboration I spent a day with Lindsay Brooks, an expert on Lowry, selecting a number of his works to hang alongside my photographs in the exhibition. This experience together with my own musings provided the final title for the exhibition – ‘Clouds Descending’. Drawn from a Wesleyan hymn it reflects Cumbria’s long association with Methodism and my own personal feeling that any sense of salvation has eroded along with industries that once thrived along this stretch of coast. Rather fittingly however, it also describes my response to many of Lowry’s images, where the sense of the sky pressing down on towns and their scurrying populations is ever-present. To all those mentioned and unmentioned who helped and participated during the two years of the making this work I am much indebted and I would like to thank them all. I hope that reading this small book will encourage others to visit walk along the coast of Cumbria.

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LS Lowry The Sea 1947 Oil on canvas The Lowry Collection, Salford

Lowry’s seascapes often come as a surprise to those familiar only with his industrial scenes. He seemed to be drawn towards the horizon line, establishing its location in relation to slabs of sea and sky. Jem sees his pictures across Morecambe Bay as sharing “the same concern of making an image across a flat picture surface, while retaining the impression of space and depth.” Lindsay Brooks


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20 Written with a Slate Pencil on a Stone, on the Side of the Mountain of Black Comb Stay, bold Adventurer; rest awhile thy limbs On this commodious Seat! For much remains Of hard ascent before thou reach the top Of this huge Eminence, – from blackness named, And, to far-travelled storms of sea and land, A favourite spot of tournament and war! But thee may no such boisterous visitants Molest; may gentle breezes fan thy brow; And neither cloud conceal, nor misty air Bedim, the grand terraqueous spectacle, From centre to circumference, unveiled! Know, if thou grudge not to prolong thy rest, That on the summit whither thou art bound A geographic Labourer pitched his tent, With books supplied and instruments of art, To measure height and distance; lonely task, Week after week pursued! – To him was given Full many a glimpse (but sparingly bestowed On timid man) of Nature’s processes Upon the exalted hills. He made report That once, while there he plied his studious work Within that canvass Dwelling, colours, lines, And the whole surface of the out-spread map, Became invisible: for all around Had darkness fallen – unthreatened, unproclaimed – As if the golden day itself had been Extinguished in a moment; total gloom, In which he sate alone, with unclosed eyes, Upon the blinded mountain’s silent top! William Wordsworth


Overlooked from Black Combe Nicholas Alfrey 21

The whole of the southern part of the coastal territory in which Jem Southam has been working, from Morecambe Bay to St Bees Head, is dominated by the bulk of Black Combe. Wordsworth claimed that from its top ‘the amplest range / of unobstructed prospect may be seen / that British ground commands’, and a significant number of writers have been attracted to it as a subject over the years. The poet Norman Nicholson, for example, made it a constant motif, like a painter, it has been said, returning over and over again to the same view. But it is Wordsworth’s inscription ‘Written with a Slate Pencil on a Stone, on the Side of the Mountain of Black Comb’ that has a particular resonance. His lines were inspired by the recent field-work of the Ordnance Survey, and evoke the figure of a ‘geographic Labourer’ who, ‘with books supplied and instruments of art / to measure height and distance’, has pitched his tent on the summit. It is generally accepted that Wordsworth based his figure on William Mudge, director of the Survey, who had undertaken the work on Black Combe in 1808. In reality, his was not quite the ‘lonely task’ Wordsworth suggested: Mudge was working with a team, and together they hauled the great theodolite, the formidable instrument, weighing some two hundred pounds, upon which their whole endeavour depended, to the top of the mountain. Two hundred years later, the figure of another kind of geographic labourer might have been seen carrying his cumbersome photographic apparatus to a series of locations along the coastal strip a few miles to the west: Jem Southam taking his own measure of a landscape that itself has often been overlooked.


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Wordsworth’s poem has been interpreted in terms of the tension between a scientific approach to the landscape and one based on subjective perception or vision. As the surveyor works on the ‘out-spread map’ in his tent, he is overtaken by ‘unthreatened, unproclaimed’ darkness, so that he is left sitting alone, ‘with unclosed eyes / upon the blinded mountain’s silent top!’ This sublime obscurity may represent only a temporary interruption of the methodical work of the survey, but it also introduces a note of uncertainty, and implies that clear sightlines are no guarantee of vision in the larger sense. At the time Wordsworth was writing, the map-making process, while it was based on the abstract armature established by trigonometrical calculation, also involved the production of large shaded drawings in order to build up a detailed visual account of the character of the terrain. Wordsworth conjured up the ‘grand terraqueous spectacle / from centre to circumference’ visible from the vantage point of Black Combe, but the contemporary draughtsmen of the Ordnance Survey were adopting an entirely different perspective, imagining themselves looking down on mountain summits as if from a position directly overhead. The Ordnance Survey did not publish the one-inch map that included Black Combe and its surrounding area until the mid 1860s, however, by which date there had been a change of methodology and the north of England was being re-surveyed on a larger scale. The practice of ‘hill sketching’ in the field had been discontinued, but the published map adhered to the original conventions of the series with the mountain mass rendered in illusionistic terms, as if seen from above, densely shaded and with the light shown coming from a hypothetical northerly direction. Ordnance Survey maps, the sophisticated successors to those made from the early surveys, have in their turn provided Southam with his key to the territory along the


Cumbrian coast, and guided him to the various sites where he has decided to make his pictures. By comparison with that total picture of the landscape created by the Survey, however, his is a selective vision: because of the constraints imposed by his chosen means, he takes very few photographs, and fewer still are printed on the large scale. His project has its survey-like aspect all the same, for his pictures are characterized by a wide field of vision, even lighting, clear organization and immense quantities of detail, objectively rendered. And like the printed sheets first published by the Survey, his photographs ultimately disclose more than the eye can see. The scenes photographed by Southam along this part of the coast take their place within the foreground of that mighty panorama evoked in Wordsworth’s lines on Black Combe. This coastal strip, however, is a place that most later visitors to the Lakes have preferred to regard from a distance, an industrial belt between the sea and the boundary of the National Park, an overlooked poor relation to the most celebrated area of scenic beauty in the country. The activities carried on in this zone, moreover, are not of a kind calculated to soothe the sensibilities of the latter-day picturesque tourist. The winding-down of heavy industry has created new forms of desolation in its aftermath, and those plants that are still operational, at Barrow, Sellafield, Drigg, continue to be the object of liberal unease. But this is just the kind of morally and environmentally complex space to which Southam has always found himself drawn. The picture of Piel Castle on its island in the straits between the Furness peninsula and Walney Island marks the southernmost point of the territory, overlooking the expanse of Morecambe Bay. This site was the subject of another poem by Wordsworth, or to be more precise, his stanzas take as their subject a painting of the castle by Sir George Beaumont, depicting it in a storm. The poet

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Jem Southam North Pier, Maryport Harbour 28 December 2006


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At Haverigg on the Duddon Estuary, walking out past the sand dunes along that part of the Cumbrian Coastal Way supported by Haverigg Bank and Bullstone Bed, I turned to look back at the town, now weighed upon by a dark, louring sky. Although less than a mile away, its topography was reduced to something schematic, dominated by simple horizontal lines and layers of shaded monochrome that reminded me of Lowry’s way of reducing scenes, especially in his drawings, to that bare economy which seems at once to register sturdiness and fragility. A narrow band of light survived below the heavy cloud and above the horizon, and against this the town’s outline appeared as an oppressed and frail silhouette. One feature alone stood out from the thin line of shadow, the black steeple of the parish church, like a pointed, boney finger raised to signal life’s survival there; in an act, as it seemed at the time, of stolid resistance. ***

“I saw the town’s black generations Packed in their caves of rock, as mussel or limpet Washed by the tidal sky; then swept, shovelled Back in the quarry again, a landslip of lintels Blocking the gape of the tarn. The quick turf pushed a green tarpaulin over All that was mortal in five thousand lives. Nor did it seem a paradox to one Who held quarry and query, turf and town, In the small lock of a recording brain.”

From Norman Nicholson, Millom Old Quarry.

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Sitting for a while on Eskmeals beach, looking out to sea and along towards Eskmeals Range, a ball of fire suddenly ignites, flares and rises, leaving just a plume of smoke as, only a few seconds later, it disappears into the misty air. Another few seconds later, looking through binoculars across almost two miles of coastline, there is no trace of what may have caused the flame, there is nothing to see. *** All night and all next day the charcoal men Nurse the smouldering mound, Pouring earth on spurts of flame, Splashing water from the beck, Damping flames and snatching sleep As best they may, on bracken-beds and turf. For three long days and nights the smell of burning, And then the fire seems to die. The smoke is gone, but all there know the embers still glow bright within. And suddenly tired men regain their drive as in each mind the thought prevails: Has it worked; had the burn gone well? Slowly, the cooled mound is turned back. The tired burners smile. The prize, the charcoal, glistens satin-black, and rings clear as a bell. From The Charcoal Burners, Irvine Hunt

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From our waking in the morning to the discussions, plans and predictions last thing at night, our days of photographing are governed by light. Light says whether we work or not, it carries our sense of possibility and all our hopes for a useful, fruitful journey. We travel to find light, we anticipate its moods and changes of character. Light, we have learned to our cost, behaves erratically; it eludes and then satisfies us, it even rewards us; we live under its unpredictable spell. Light is the angry, gentle, indifferent and benevolent being of the air. *** As far as light is concerned we live in a kind of inverse world to that of the tourists we travel and work around. For us, the sun is bad, even depressing. There’s nothing more frustrating than a bright blue, cloudless sky. Instead we crave dull, cloud-covered days, or more perfectly, high-level, white, uniform cloud, casting its soft blanket over the hours and regulating the light into an even, seethrough clarity. Just why this is the case is not so easily explained. But, to risk simplification, it’s something like this. There is a common governing premise among certain contemporary landscape photographers, especially those working in colour: strong sunlight creates too much drama; it transforms the landscape into something potentially glorious but also unreal – too vibrant, too picturesque, too transient. Sun idealises every location it touches. If you want to sell a place, to generate tourist traffic, photograph it under a blue sky when it’s light’s great infusion you see and not the place itself. If, however, you want to see the place clearly and precisely for what it is, to render its true identity in a balanced, measured way, you need cloud to veil the sun and temper its enthusiastic light displays with something more moderate.


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Jem Southam climbing the vast slag-heap outside Barrow-in-Furness. (Photo: David Chandler).

At Snab Point looking out across the estuary at low tide towards Piel Island. (Photo: David Chandler).


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It’s not necessarily a matter of fiction versus reality. Sunlight and the effects of light and shade can reveal things – ancient terracing on a hillside for example – that pale, uniform light cannot. Dull, grey skies do not necessarily have a monopoly on descriptive integrity. But if strong sunlight heightens visual experience and tempts the photographer in all of us to capture the scene as if it were a temporary, even momentary revelation, then the landscape photography of the kind this particular photographer favours is characterised by control and restraint. In one sense this is a technical issue. With the 10 x 8” camera lens so attuned to fine detail and atmospheric effects, and with everything that’s visible held in such delicate balance, the job is partly how to ensure the best from the camera, how to harness most usefully its remarkable gifts of transcription. But it is also about a kind of aesthetic containment, one of holding back colour, for example, like a rich green pasture which would tend to drift in the sun an on the film towards a more acidic saturation and exaggeration. These are among the choices and preferences made by contemporary photographers since the 1970s as they introduced new subject areas for photography along with new ways of looking at them. In an important sense this restructuring of photography’s visual vocabulary has been a form of resistance to the dominant culture, to the pressing demands of commerce and the media, which, in contrast to the particular form of descriptive ‘purism’ alluded to here, will always incline towards the drama of events and to the brightness of a scene, to those contrasts of light and shade that will animate a page and create a story. This photographer’s narratives of time and place insist on a slower, more contemplative reading, and they are imbued with a profoundly melancholic tone that Lowry would have recognised and approved of. There is an urge in his approach to work against that emotive, sentimental


reaction to landscape that, as part of the convoluted legacy of romanticism, wants to swoon in the face of epic scenes and beautiful places but does not have the patience to understand or experience them over time. The word he likes most as a summary of his work, but also, I sense, of his entire sensibility, is ‘sombre’. Against the happy jangle and distortions of the sunny day, and against a received idea of beauty, his landscape photographs are more selective, offering something more pared down yet also more substantial, and over time more quietly persuasive. *** At Whitehaven harbour ‘the maritime gateway to England’s Lake district’ we notice the large number of private boats in the marina, many of them seem very lavish and we wonder who owns them and where the owners come from, and what sacrifices they may have made for the thrill of taking to sea in these handsome craft. There is one boat in particular that catches my eye, a beautiful black-hulled sloop with limed wood decking and white cabin, masts and sails. A sign on its rear end declares its port of origin – Camden, Maine. It’s from New England, from across the Atlantic, but the boat bears no signs of the sea-lashing that that journey brings to mind. Instead it looks to have arrived from one of Edward Hopper’s sun-washed canvases, those visions of light and air where seeing is also to inhale deeply a warm, fresh breeze blowing from the ocean. Moored here on this overcast day, the boat seems to be biding its time, quietly confident of its own grace and its inevitable return to its spiritual home, where it will soon be seen cutting through the waves of a Cape Cod August. It brings a sense of exotic internationalism to the harbour, and in this it picks up an echo from the past and a time when Whitehaven was a prosperous seaport and an important centre for

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Jem Southam View of Duddon Estuary and Black Combe from top of slag bank, Barrow-in-Furness 9 May 2007


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transatlantic trade. In the eighteenth century much of this trade was based around tobacco imports from Virginia and Maryland, and on sugar (and the rum produced from it) from British-owned plantations in the West Indies, such as those in Barbados bought by Whitehaven’s powerful Lowther and Senhouse families. Central to the production of these goods was slavery. Beginning in 1711 and continuing until 1769, Whitehaven slave ships carried more than 14,000 slaves out of Africa and then on across the Atlantic. *** ‘Despite the risks, trade based around transatlantic slavery brought tremendous prosperity to the region. Although merchants stood to gain most from this overseas commerce, those supplying their ships, trade goods and other needs all profited too. Success in colonial trade spurred Lancaster merchants to act collectively to improve port facilities and to express their growing confidence through commissioning the elegant Customs House on St Georges Quay. Those in colonial trade made less impact on harbour development in Whitehaven given the patronage of the powerful Lowther family who, in accommodating their interests in the coal trade, did not always meet the needs of the port’s transatlantic fleet. Wealth and trade translated into fine town houses and substantial warehouses in both ports, Merchants also purchased land and property in surrounding districts which they turned into country estates, a practice that was mirroed in some style by John Bolton’s procurement of Storrs Hall at Windermere on the back of Liverpool trade. Some around Lancaster even ventured into water-powered cotton mills.’ Open2.net, BBC/Open University Website

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On our way to photograph Sellafield at about 6.30pm we drive down the Nethertown Road, which is little more than a single car’s width and made into a narrow gully by steep banks fringed with hedgerows on either side. The evening light is holding up but we have to be quick if we are to reach the chosen vantage point, by the coastal railway just beyond Braystones, about half an hour’s walk away from Middlebank church where we plan to park the car. Driving up and down hills we seemed to accelerate as we went, in a kind of toboggan run, testing blind corners in the confidence that we were the only car on the road. And as we drove on Sellafield’s towers began to break the horizon ahead, looming out of the countryside like a stage set, a low budget industrial citadel from a 1960s sci-fi series. Leaving the car we walked through fields and green pasture, past grazing cattle and across a strange river bridge of single planks slung between two heavy-duty cables that looked as though it would have been more at home traversing a bottomless South American ravine. On past a sewage works we eventually find our spot on an embankment sloping away from the railway line that borders the beach. It’s an elevated position and gives the photographer a panoramic view across the River Ehen and more cattle-grazed fields towards Sellafield itself, now little more than a mile away. It is nothing less than an English pastoral scene, and a kind of meditation on an evolving history of which Sellafield (formerly a World War two ordnance factory, which became the Windscale and Calder Works nuclear facility until it was renamed in 1981) is very much a part. There seems a contradiction here, ancient and modern history uneasily combined, but Sellafield has become embedded into this place and will be for years to come. Some of its structures are now more than fifty years old, some are currently being dismantled and others newly built. After a fire in 1957, and a large

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spill of radioactive material, Pile 1 on the site still contains unstable uranium fuel. Its cleaning and decommissioning programme won’t be complete until 2037. Whatever the pros and cons of the nuclear industry might be, and putting aside for the moment the unsettling legacy that its presence here might bestow, Sellafield’s image settles into this landscape and in some ways embellishes it, as a picturesque element in the way classical ruins gave focus and balance to a Claude or a Poussin. It may disturb rather than invoke arcadian dreams but Sellafield employs over 10,000 of the local population, and, echoing this coast’s industrial heritage, it has become part of the region’s cultural identity, for better or worse. *** At Harrington we meet a man out walking his dogs who has harsh words for the coastline and beach we were about to walk along and which I have not seen or experienced before. Pointing to where we’re headed he said: ‘All that is contaminated, it’s heavily polluted. They just poured molten iron down there and left it for all those years. They were still doing it in my lifetime, only thirty years ago. They say it’s sea defences, they said it was there to stop tanks. ‘Someone should clean it all up, take it all away and turn the beach back to the way it used to be, its natural state. At the moment it’s no place for the kids round here, they can’t play on it, people can’t use it, it’s a disgrace. There aren’t that many birds, no wildlife, it’s dead that’s what it is. See that orange looking mud round the bottom of slag, I wouldn’t go near it, it’s toxic that. I’ve written to the Environment Agency, to the Council, no reply. They’re doing nothing; no one listens or cares about it. It could be a great place, a grand beach. People would come here, it’d be a great place for wind surfers.’ ***


A hundred yards or so along the beach we come across the first of what appear to be a series of massive sculptural blocks, iron slag casts around six feet high in the shape of rounded, four-sided pyramids the colour of dried blood flecked with orange rust. The blocks are aligned in formation like the discarded helmets of colossal warriors who might once have stood sentry on this beach. It’s an extraordinary sight and the knowledge that it’s just a remnant of the local iron industry doesn’t altogether dampen its exotic, mythic character. In fact the blocks seem to have been formed as molten iron slag was transported on the coastal railway in chaldron wagons and simply turned out here, the slag having already cooled and hardened into the shape of the wagon and imprinted with its structure. Extending for around a mile along the shore they do look like effective but forgotten sea defences, but now, variously cracked, eroded and tumbled, they are Harrington’s Easter Island statues, it’s own brooding ancient relics. *** Further still along the beach I realise we are walking on an iron pavement extending from the cliff base for well over fifty-yards towards the sea, it’s rock pools scooped out like any other but filled here with bright orange water. It’s the rust that continually reminds you what this stuff actually is. The pavement is studded with huge nails, and all kinds of square and cylindrical shaped objects, the moulded forms of the factory and iron works. It’s as if the metallic soup of an entire industry has flowed into and hardened in this place: here is its historical footprint, the fossilised detritus of generations of smoke, heat and hard labour. ***

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It is often said that, as an art-form, photography is too easy, it’s too quick, it moves along as quickly as a passing thought, the shutter released, the fleeting moment, a simple reflex that then becomes fixed, its images unnaturally enduring, unnaturally acquiring significance that may or may not be there. Photography moves inside time in this way, it breaks it down and allows us to see and reflect on things that would otherwise be beyond us, beyond our perception. And in doing this photography has also changed the way we see. After 170 years or so, we have learned to look and comprehend photographically, we tend to view things in snapshots and as images, seeing the world through the filter of all the photographs we have looked at and absorbed into our imaginations. But the question lingers about the value of photography’s vast mirror on our experience; what ‘art’, if any, is there in its increasingly swift and multiple reflections. If most thoughts come to nothing and leave us as quickly as they arrive, what should we make of photographs? Just ephemera, the sceptics would tell us. Art in comparison is a process that requires time and effort, it needs rigour as well as inspiration; art is work. In an attempt to distinguish them from the ephemeral associations of the medium, the term ‘hard-won’ is often applied to particular photographs, as it is to the practice of certain photographers. It’s a vague notion, but over the four days I spent in West Cumbria accompanying this landscape photographer, I began to understand what the term might actually mean, to grasp how photographs might be carved out of experience rather than be made simply as reactions to it. This photographer’s work, for example, is always a combination of intense thinking, planning and physical effort. It involves constant journeying, and endurance, which is also a testing of psychological strength. The hours spent working might be fruitful, even tentatively


pleasing, or they might prove fruitless, time completely wasted. Walking and carrying are the conditions of the work, not just part of the preparation. The hard graft of getting to a place, perhaps difficult and inaccessible, is part of this photographer’s practice. It all seems so appropriate here walking alongside these slag cliffs, it is as if a battle must be fought, and endured; it is as if we are confronting the beast. Walking across the land, feeling the earth changing beneath each step; to feel the weather, to be blown by the wind, sprayed by the sea, for muscles to be sapped by the sand and feet bruised by pebbles and rocks. It is all part of what it is to be located. The carrying exaggerates the impact of that experience; this photography is not made easily, we are not light-footed, the journey is not quick. *** The things he carries: In a black camera bag, usually hanging down from his neck and across his chest, and now showing signs of wear, he carries a Sekonic digital light meter, a Schneider x6 magnifying loup (for focussing on the ground glass screen), a 210mm f5.6 Fujinon–W lens, a 360mm f6.8 Schneider Symmar–S lens, two heliopan conversion filters, two heliopan UV filters and a Giotto patented ‘Rocket’ air puffer. Also carried in the bag are a spirit level and a spare spirit level, a cable release and a spare cable release, a Casio digital watch (found by his daughter Josie eight years ago buried in sand in a stream on a Brittany beach, and which still works), a Phillips screwdriver (for tightening various parts of the camera), a black Pilot pen, an optical quality Sueded Micro-fibre cleaning cloth, two spare tripod bushes, a packet of Blackcurrant throat lozenges (long forgotten but found again recently), a simple Swiss Army Knife and a pair of close-up reading glasses (to look at the

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inverted image on the camera’s ground glass screen, much needed, he says, as old age creeps up). In this bag he also carries a compass, a spare Weston Euro Master light-meter, a large Bulldog clip, a spare AA battery for the digital light-meter, a spare cloth for cleaning lenses and a packet of tissues. On occasion, depending on the location and the particular journey to it, he will also cram into this case an A5 sketchbook, some reading matter (in case he has to wait for tides to turn etc.), and, on extended walks, a water bottle and even a packet of biscuits. Held in his right hand and tucked under his arm he carries a five-foot aluminium ladder and a large umbrella. And over his right shoulder he carries another black bag containing three dark-slides loaded with six sheets of Kodak Porta 160 daylight film. In his left hand he carries a large Gitzo tripod (with four extension positions to a maximum of eleven feet). On his back in a blue and grey CameraCare backpack he carries a folded flat 10”x 8” Wista Field Camera, a 300mm f5.6 Nikkor-W lens, a 240mm f5.6 Rodenstock Sironar-N lens and a dark-cloth, black with red facing. He wears a Bright Red Gortex waterproof coat (which is highly visible in the event of an accident under a cliff or in case he is cut off by tide). The coat has many pockets, perfectly suited for carrying bits of equipment while he is making pictures on the aluminium ladder. In one of these pockets he also carries a mobile phone. In his car he carries spare dark-slides loaded with more film, several boxes of fresh film, more boxes to store exposed film, black-out material and pins to create a light-tight space for changing film in a Bed and Breakfast (usually the bathroom), a brush to clean the dark-slides, various marker pens, and a supply of paper (for leaving notes). In addition to all this, in pockets and bags, he also carries Ordnance Survey maps.


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A view across Maryport harbour to where Jem Southam is making a photograph on the far harbour wall similar to that on p.30-31. (Photo: David Chandler)

Sculptural ‘slag casts’ ranged along the beach beyond Harrington. (Photo: David Chandler).


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Bird survey, Foulney Island Matthew Southam


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Bird survey, Haverigg Matthew Southam


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Bird survey, Ravenglass Matthew Southam


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Cumbrian Coast, 2008

Particles Harriet Tarlo

Outcrops at Haverigg  75

Black Combe  93

driving by  86 Harbourside, Workington  87 Workington  88

Eskmeals   80 St Bees  82

before it all  77 beach bricks  78

Barrow  69 Duddon Sands  70 Dunnerholme  74

Manchester Oxford Road  64

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On Metal Beach Richard Hamblyn 95

When I was a student, in the early 1980s, I spent a summer doing voluntary work at the Sheffield City Museum, where most of my time was spent carefully de-mounting a stack of faded topographical prints before wrapping them in acid-free paper. Every now and then the curator would appear, and gather up an armful to be sorted and shelved in one of the vast metal plan chests that lined the basement walls. Once a week, to break the monotony, I helped out at the museum’s off-site repository, an imposing former iron foundry that was in the process of being converted into a state-of-the-art industrial museum. The place was chaos, with hundreds of miscellaneous artefacts, from ancient kettles and rusting bicycles to the painted wooden horses of a Victorian carousel, crammed into any available space. Dominating everything, however, was an enormous iron contraption that looked like something built to besiege a medieval fortress, but that was, I was told, a priceless piece of industrial heritage: an original 1856 Bessemer Converter, salvaged from the Workington steelworks a few years before, where it had been in more-or-less continuous operation for close on a hundred years. At the time I had no idea what a Bessemer Converter actually did (it converted molten pig iron into malleable steel by removing impurities through rapid oxidation), but its vast immovable presence made a strong impression on me, and it was always the first image that sprang to mind when I heard the words “Industrial Revolution�. But it was only very recently, when I stood on the metal-strewn beach at Moss Bay, Workington, and looked up at the site of the former steelworks that I was able to visualise


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it as part of a productive working landscape, rather than a dissociated object in a shed. In fact it was difficult not to, since the entire bay was covered, as far as the eye could see, with the by-products of Henry Bessemer’s great engine, one of a pair of machines that processed around fifty tonnes of steel an hour, every hour, from the early 1870s until the early 1970s, with every coke-fuelled oxidising blast sending jets of multi-coloured flame rocketing from the spout. The noise would have been deafening, but though the twin engines are long gone, and the buildings that housed them are in the course of being demolished, the silent cliffs of slag and metal that spill onto the beach constitute a fragile reminder of the scale and longevity of west Cumbrian steelmaking: a hundred and thirty years of molten history eroding into the sea. The excursion to the iron shore was Jem’s idea: a few days walking the Cumbrian coast with the aim of exploring a series of ex-industrial landscapes lying forgotten in the shadow of the Lakes. The trip sounded too good to miss. I was already aware that Jem’s work was rooted in the close observation of landscapes over time, a heavily labour-intensive process that involves repeat visits made to a handful of sites over lengthy periods of time. The result in each case is a body of work that is ‘a response to a slow absorption of the site’, as Southam has characterised his immersive practice, an approach that has done much to expand the temporal dimension of post-New Topographics photography. So it came as something of a surprise to discover that Jem welcomes company on these contemplative adventures, and had issued invitations to a range of individuals – mainly writers with some form of engagement with landscape – to accompany him on his Cumbrian expeditions. Knowing my particular interest in the remoter corners of the earth sciences, Jem had included an enticing detail in the invite he sent to me: ‘I was out photographing a cliff


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Bessemer Converter, Kelham Island Industrial Museum, Sheffield. The impurities removed during the Bessemer steelmaking process included silicon, manganese and carbon; these oxidised as gases or as solid slag deposited along the shore.

Jem shooting towards Piel Castle from the Isle of Walney, 30 June 2008.


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one day near Workington’, he wrote, ‘when I realised that it was not a geological feature but a slagheap some mile or so long and 100 or so feet high with all sorts of strange materials falling out onto the beach.’ In fact, as we soon discovered, it appeared that much of that section of coast had been shaped by the processes of ‘industrial geology’, as Jem described these manmade accretions, a phrase first coined in the early 1970s by the land artist Robert Smithson, whose later work had sought to accommodate the environmental traces left by large-scale industrial technologies. At that stage Jem had been toying with “Industrial Geology” as the overall title for this exhibition, and his emails remained preoccupied by the visual power of this crumbling anthropogenic shoreline, an accidental earthwork on a grander scale than even Spiral Jetty (1970), Smithson’s 1,500-foot coil of basalt that is currently threatened by exploratory oil drilling in the Great Salt Lake, Utah, although, given Smithson’s claim that the best sites for his work were those ‘disrupted by industry, reckless urbanisation or nature’s own devastation’, perhaps he wouldn’t have objected. From Jem’s brief description, Bessemer’s spoil-cliffs were clearly a sight worth seeing; so on the last day of June I caught the 10:13 from Euston, changing at Lancaster three hours later, where I boarded the slow train to Sellafield. Jem and Nick Alfrey were waiting for me at Barrow-in-Furness, having already climbed a nearby slagheap for a view over the Duddon and the Isle of Walney, to which we had agreed to make a brief detour, since Jem was keen to revisit the site of an earlier picture he had made looking over the marsh towards the ruins of Piel Castle, while I was interested in trying to locate some First World War gun emplacements that are rumoured to lie buried in the glacial till. Leaving Jem to haul his equipment from the car park to the beach, Nick and I skirted the perimeter of


an unkempt golf course in search of abandoned military structures, laughing at the notion of us as scholarly descendants of Wordsworth’s ‘geographic labourer’, a surveyor who, according to a poem of 1813, had experienced a kind of metaphysical eclipse upon the cloud-haunted summit of Black Combe, an outlying fell whose smoky bulk remained visible throughout our trip. Whatever had befallen the surveyor on the Combe – madness? alcohol? a sudden incursion of cloud? –, it forestalled all his attempts to represent the world in two dimensions: ‘colours, lines, and the whole surface of the out-spread map became invisible’, as Wordsworth put it. No wonder Jem is so taken with the poem, and the following day he read it aloud to us from a dog-eared Lakeland anthology as we stowed our bags in the boot of his car and headed for the Duddon estuary. For Jem, as for Wordsworth’s surveyor, the purpose of the journey seemed clear: to revisit certain key locations with his camera and his stepladder in order to make new pictures for the upcoming exhibition. But as far as Nick and I were concerned (and presumably this was also true for the other contributors), our roles in the project seemed less defined, and much of that day’s conversation turned on the question of why we were there, and what outcomes our itinerant collaboration might yield. A catalogue essay? A piece for the Guardian travel section? A po-faced dissertation on psychogeography for one of the scholarly journals? None of these seemed to suit the occasion or the setting, until Jem outlined an idea he had been developing for a series of artists’ books or foldouts to accompany the show, to be written or compiled by his invited companions. It would be entirely up to us what form they took, and my initial response, prompted by the teeming coastal skies as well as by Jem’s latest title for the show – “Clouds Descending”, a reference to one of Charles Wesley’s more sonorous hymns – was to begin

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compiling an on-the-hour cloud diary, with the aim of producing a foldout strip of sky photos, with time and place picked out in a series of captions (see opposite). By late afternoon, however, I had thought better of the idea, having realised that a sheet of thumbnail images of a couple of dozen fairly similar-looking clouds would actually be quite dull. And besides, Jem kept changing his mind about the choice of title, preferring “Coastal Structures” for a time, before reverting back to “Industrial Geology”; but then, after another glance at Black Combe, with its shifting bonnet of orographic stratus, he declared for “Clouds Descending” again, its non-conformist connotations so suited to the curiously deadpan atmosphere of this weather-beaten corner of England. Later on I saw him sky-sketching a fleet of cirrus clouds as they spread across the Duddon valley from over the shoulder of Black Combe, and I knew that he was rethinking his title yet again. ‘I’ll let you know nearer the time’, he said. Half an hour later we were back on the beltway, keen to get to Workington’s metalline foreshore before the tide came in. Our walk was set to take us from the beach at Harrington through to Workington harbour, a two-hour scramble over what looked at first like limestone pavement but turned out to be a mixture of heat-fractured metal, iron slag, and quartzite pebble distributed unevenly underfoot. It was like walking through the aftermath of an artillery campaign, a landscape studded with broken shapes of waste iron and steel, some of which had apparently been dragged across the beach during the Second World War and arranged in crude defensive lines against possible German invasion. Someone in the ‘70s had painted the words “Thin Lizzy” on the side of one of the iron casts. ‘Heavy metal’, said Nick, recalling that the original name for the Dublin band had been “Tin Lizzy”, after a cartoon robot that featured for a time in the Dandy. We wondered whether


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1 July 2008 (left to right) Cirrus clouds over Askam in Furness, 10 am Cirrus fibratus clouds, Moss Bay, 1:01 pm Cumulus fractus in the shape of a seahorse, Moss Bay, 1:38 pm Slag clouds, Moss Bay, 3:30 pm

‘Heavy Metal’, Harrington Beach, 1 July 2008


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“Clouds Descending�: Jem tracing the patterns made by cirrus fibratus clouds over the Duddon estuary, 1 July 2008


the ‘metal’ pun had been on the artist’s mind (though “Iron Maiden” would have been a more obvious choice); but it was strange to think of graffiti being hand painted rather than spraycanned, as though these salt-faded letters were the rare traces of some obsolete artisan tradition. By now Jem had set up his camera on a path above the anti-tank line, looking towards the slag cliffs that he had mentioned in his emails, and was deep in conversation with a passer-by, a dog walker who had been curious about the large-format Wista field camera, perched on its sevenfoot tripod. Jem’s camera attracted attention wherever we went, not surprisingly given the theatricality of his working method, the scarlet and black of his photographer’s hood like a warning pennant on a gunnery range (an analogy that became briefly literal during our visit to the Eskmeals Firing Range, from where Jem took a haunting shot of Sellafield in the distance). I for one had never seen a plate camera in action before, and it was fascinating to observe the elaborate care with which Jem positioned and sited it (‘well it does cost me fifteen quid every time I press the shutter’); and the first time he invited us to ascend the ladder and peer beneath the hood to catch the camera’s-eye view, I was startled by the hallucinatory range of detail in the upside-down universe it contained. Rocks and soils were a particular revelation, the traces of their mineral content exposed in ways that the human eye was usually too busy or distracted to notice: a spectrochemical effect familiar from Jem’s earlier Rockfalls series, but still disconcerting to encounter directly through the shrouded glass. Soon we were walking below the slag cliffs themselves, having rounded the headland north of Harrington, and from up close there was something uncanny about these huge artificial outcrops that had begun to mimic certain aspects of natural coastal

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formations; rainwater had percolated from the upper surfaces, creating fissures and frost-cracks all the way down, while wave erosion had carved out miniature caves and inlets at the base of the stratified spoil-face. But the colours and smells were all wrong, and in spite of the birds and the pockets of sea thrift that had established themselves in the chemical mulch, the cliff line felt like a terraformed replica, artificially aged to resemble Jurassicera geology. ‘Mountains are great poets’, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once noted in his journal, ‘and one glance at this cliff undoes a great deal of prose’. But it was strange to think of the Earth-moving enterprise that had formed this cliffscape coming to an end, and stranger still to think of the entire structure eventually eroding away to nothing; in fact we were able to glimpse the latter process unfolding before our eyes, Jem’s discovery of a recent slagfall suddenly throwing him into Rockfalls mode, and he excitedly set up his camera at the base of the cliff in order to add a manmade example to his inventory of gravitational sculptures. While Jem waited on the beach for a more photographically favourable sky to appear, Nick and I continued our walk, clambering up the sea defence to take a look at what was left of the Moss Bay steelworks, which had closed in August 2006 with the loss of all 250 jobs, the final cohort of a long-dwindling workforce that had once stood in the tens of thousands. Corus’s decision to transfer rail production to its Scunthorpe site had put an end to Workington’s 130-year steelmaking tradition, and the air of finality that hung over the scene was unmistakeable, with rows of workers’ houses left facing a vast fenced-off brownfield site equipped with camera towers to deter unofficial salvage. Not that there was anything left to take, just a few empty office buildings and the roofless remains of one of the cooling sheds. Not long after the steelworks closed the site was


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Jem at the new rockfall, slag cliffs along Moss Bay, near Harrington, 1 July 2008

Metal Beach & Spoil Cliffs, Moss Bay, 1 July 2008. Jem and his camera can be seen on the right


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Jem Southam ‘The Sloth’, eroding slag structure on the beach north of Workington Harbour 31 January 2007


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Contributors

Nicholas Alfrey teaches art history at the University of Nottingham. He has a special interest in the representation of landscape, and has curated exhibitions on themes such as mapping, rivers and gardens. Lindsay Brooks was formerly Curator of the LS Lowry Collection and subsequently Head of Galleries at the Lowry. She has curated many exhibitions of Lowry’s work, which have encouraged new ways of viewing the artist. David Chandler is currently Director of Photoworks. He has written widely about photography and the visual arts for a variety of magazines including Portfolio, Art Monthly and Photoworks Magazine. Richard Hamblyn is a writer and historian. His books include ‘The Invention of Clouds’ and ‘Terra: Tales of the Earth’. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, and is a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement. He is currently Writer in Residence at the Environment Institute, University College London Jem Southam has been photographing in the English landscape for thirty-five years. His images capture the marks of time (often industrial) embedded in his chosen terrain. He has exhibited widely including at the Tate St Ives (2005) and the V&A (2006). He is Professor of Photography at The University of Plymouth where he is also a member of the ‘Land/Water and Visual Arts’ research group. Matthew Southam is a science teacher who has lived in the west of Cornwall for 30 years. His ornithological work primarily involves surveying for bird atlases. Harriet Tarlo is a poet, academic and Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. Recent books include ‘Poems 1990-2003’ (Shearsman Books, 2004) and ‘Nab’ (Etruscan Books, 2005). She is currently editing a new collection of Radical Landscape Poetry for Shearsman Press.

Clouds Descending  

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