“Upton Pyne” walks the viewer around a pond near Exeter, in Devon, that at first glance seems unprepossessing. Over the course of several years, Southam has watched as this gardenesque feature of someone’s extended backyard has been altered by human effort and “improved” in various ways in an attempt to make it more pleasing as a landscape. He has, in short, documented the efforts of an anonymous, presumably vernacular, landscape designer to create order out of wildness. These efforts, sad to say, initially fall short of the mark and the place re-verges on wildness, only to be invested with renewed enterprise. We sense that the pond will never become a perfect vista, that it is resisting total acculturation even as it suffers the indignity of becoming a dumping ground for trash, that the cycle of renewal and decay is constant; this sense gives the series its poignancy. Only in the fact of the photographs, wonderfully framed to focus on selected views of the pond, is there any resolution of the place that can justly be called beautiful.
The “Upton Pyne” series suggests the extent to which Southam’s project is akin to landscape design (or, to use Frederick Olmsted’s term, landscape architecture), and it encourages us to view the ideas projected by his work as a kind of visual critique of the garden as a human construct. Like Olmsted and his successors, Southam fashions a natural beauty from the inadequacies of Nature herself. The pond of the “Upton Pyne” series makes this explicit; the detritus of what was once a lived-in landscape is gradually refashioned to appear more natural and then documented as inherently beautiful by the camera.
What separates Southam’s work from the “Postmodern Landscape” genre of the last quarter of the twentieth century lies in the sum of its resistances to modernity: its acceptance of the ambiguities of human interactions with the natural world, its preoccupation with processes of change, its explicitly fictional surround, its anti-empiricism. His is a metaphoric world, much like Thomas Hardy’s Wesses, the fictional center of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd. Like Hardy, Southam sets his work in southwest England, and like Hardy he establishes the contradictions between rural and industrial life as the context within which his narrative about the circumstances of contemporary existence can take place.
Excerpted from “Nature 1, 2, 3: Landscape Photography from Eden to Idyll to Garden” by Andy Grundberg In Landscape Stories: Jem Southam (Princeton Architectural Press, 2005)