Jem Southam

Jem Southam is one of our foremost British photographers, for many years Emeritus Professor of Photography at Exeter University, much loved by his students, while also producing beautiful work for exhibition and books. That relationship, writes one time student and subsequent colleague, Oliver Udy, was immensely important to his students. The fact that Jem was, ‘a photographer out making work, as well as an academic in the classroom’, was at the core of his teaching. His kind wisdom that was, adds Oliver, offered generously to staff and students, ‘sending many a project in a new more considered direction.’

Jem’s work gripped our attention in West Cornwall when his marvellous exhibition, From a Distance: An Industrial Landscape in Cornwall, was shown at Tate St Ives in 2004-5. We first met him at Kestle Barton in 2011 when he came to deliver the beautiful huge prints he had very generously made for a show about Ray Exworth A Shutter Came Down (17 September – 30 October 2011). Jem’s photos of Ray’s abandoned work, The Circus, were shown alongside Ray’s boxes and chalk drawings – all wonderful work but added to immeasurably by Jem’s images which convey the scale, inventiveness, attention to detail, humour and pathos of Ray’s enormous body of work.

Jem had taken photos of Ray’s work throughout the eighties becoming great friends with Ray and his wife Susie, though Ray didn’t really like visitors in his sheds, often trying to deter Jem. After a cup or two of coffee and some of Susie’s delicious cake Ray might suggest that it was time for the visitor to leave. As Susie has written, ‘…to allow anyone to enter would be to give them access to a very private and personal part of his mind which he did not feel inclined to share with anyone. For some years even I was not allowed in…’ Luckily for us, Jem has tenacity and an appropriately strong sense of the value of his own work as well as Ray’s and he did manage to slip into the sheds and take a number of brilliant photos over the years. Sadly Ray is no longer with us but Susie’s cake is as good as ever and Jem continues to visit her. Within the last few months he has been photographing Ray’s work again, now brave enough to take a large format camera into the crowded chaos of the sheds and producing magnificent work which will one day make a book.

In 2016, a second show at Kestle Barton, of Jem’s photographs of Rays work included images gathered from several different sheds. (Ray’s Sheds: The Hidden Work of Ray Exworth – 10 September – 29 October 2016) Jem gave a terrific talk with sculptor Tim Shaw at the opening.

Besides Jem’s continuing interest in Ray Exworth’s work we had, of course, been aware of his on going landscape work and so were thrilled when it was possible in 2019 to bring an exhibition of this to Kestle Barton. Entitled Birds, Rivers, Rain (13 April – 2 June 2019), it followed Birds, Rocks, Rivers, Islands which took place at the Levinski Gallery in Plymouth earlier in the year.

In his essay for the catalogue that accompanied both shows, Jem talks both about the relationship that develops with a site from ‘the steady perambulation of a known and frequently fixed locale’ but also notes that these two exhibitions presented a new development in his work, of individual works, standing alone, ‘each a notation of a moment, on a particular walk, on a given day.’ Jem gave a fascinating talk at the Kestle Barton opening, revealing how much difference using a digital camera had made to the way he is able to make work – of being able to photograph birds at distance and speed; of finding unsafe footholds on cliff edges, made possible with a light weight camera; with photographing in the rain and in the dark and with pushing exposure values to the extreme. The exhibition included beautiful examples of each of these strategies and Jem very kindly presented Kestle Barton with a very fine print of cows patiently standing in the rain.

During the exhibition, Jem was a vital presence and contributor to Representing Nature, a weekend of walking, talks and writing, working with writer Mark Cocker and poet Virginia Astley. (Photo below of Jem sharing the floor with Mark at a terrific sell-out talk they gave).

We very much welcome Jem’s generous and continuing interest in Kestle Barton, recently (2023) contributing to the opening of our Fay Godwin exhibition, Under a turbulent sky (9 September – 28 October, 2023) and recommending that we look at current work by Oliver Udy and Colin Robins with a view to an exhibition in 2024, Anthology of Rural Life: Farmers of The Lizard (15 June – 1 September). 

Associate Artists

Paul Chaney

Open Tuesday - Sunday 10:30am - 5pm. Closed Mondays but open for Bank Holidays