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Compare and Contrast Two Photobooks

Updated February 23, 2021
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Compare and Contrast Two Photobooks essay

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I have decided to compare and contrast “The Pond at Upton Pyne” by Jem Southam and “We Make the Path by Walking” by Paul Gaffney as they both explore the idea of escapism in the natural landscape in similar but also in different stylings with regard to narrative devices, design and context.

Southam, using a large format camera to produce 8×10 inch negatives (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2005), takes a documentary approach in guiding us through the attempted restoration and human alteration of a pond in someone’s back garden near Exeter (Cornell University, 2005). Southam structured his photobook into three parts chronicling three people who tried to revamp and remodel the area surrounding the ‘pond at Upton Pyne’ in an attempt to modernise the landscape which unfortunately failed (Cornell University, 2005).

Comparatively, “We Make the Path by Walking” by Gaffney centres around the idea of walking and being at one with nature is which has been described by some as akin to that of a personal transformation (Padley, 2013). Gaffney produces images of 160mm x 210mm (Gaffney, 2013) size making the photographs extremely intimate for the viewer which allows for a more personal connection to the narrative at hand. In contrast to Southam’s photobook, Gaffney based his series of work in the rugged rural landscapes of Spain, Portugal and France (Padley, 2013). Whilst the concept may perhaps differ, similarities can be drawn in terms of the documentary approach taken by both the photographers in allowing for the intricate chronicling and interweaving of the central topics of nature and escapism.

In the series of work produced by Southam, the photobook contains twenty-one large format photographs (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2005) so to allow for a more macro rather than personal approach to the natural landscape, to give context to the main focal point of the photobook, that is the pond. This book sees three different people attempting to transform the pond (locally known as the “Black Pit”) ( Alfrey, 2011) from one’s vision to transport it into an idyllic Eden to the other end of the creative spectrum in one yearning it to become a leisure area featuring picnic tables.

The final part of the series is a point of view and objective shot from the pond’s edges where Southam turns the camera out giving the viewer a connection to the pond and surrounding landscape (Davis Museum, 2008). The final prints were large, and they were successful in almost drawing the viewer into the location with an extreme level of detail (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2005) and seeing it from the photographers own two eyes as seen in one of the wide angle shots below.

In stark contrast to this is Gaffney’s “We Make the Path by Walking” which consists of forty images printed on Munken Lynx Paper spread out over seventy-eight pages and also has the surprise addition of the poem “Caminante no hay camino” by Antonio Machaedo which translates roughly to ‘walker, there is no way”. Perhaps the greater quantity of photos is to allow for a more intensive and personal account of walking whereas Southam favours a more detached clinical approach to his subject as he is objectively chronicling the participants’ endeavours.

The soft-cover with a photo illustrated slip case and swiss binding (Paul Gaffney, 2013) is quite rustic, quaint and personal which is seemingly quite inviting. Whilst Southam’s final prints are quite large, Gaffney’s are much smaller and intimate in making the viewer feel like they’re walking through the rural landscapes with Gaffney and helping them feel at one with the natural landscape. It could be a form of escapism for some as viewers can switch off and transcend to a mystical and beautiful place and personally connect with the photographs in the series of work.

The sense of place is quite strong as we see Gaffney taking multiple journeys span over three countries. Taking a quote directly from British Journal of Photography, the opinion that “in a fast-paced hurried world, Paul somehow manages to pause time” (British Journal of Photography, 2013) is extremely truthful and is enticing to the viewer in that the book pursues a form of meditation, peacefulness and escapism in rural nature.

Both photobooks are similar in the feelings they provoke being both extremely calming in tandem with being picturesque. When the negatives in Southam’s body of work were enlarged, they revealed an “entrancing wealth of information” (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2005) and this becomes a perhaps entrancing and tranquil experience for the viewers as they are shown the pond from the objective perspective of Southam himself as well as from the attempted restorers of the landscape. It may encourage a meditative and reflective state as Jem attempts to emphasise that the images “recording it have a beauty of their own” (Tate, 2003) despite the concept revolving around

“An abandoned manganese mine that had become a rubbish dump and general eyesore” (Tate, 2003).

Likewise, Gaffney’s photobook which looked at long distance walking as a “form of meditation” (British Journal of Photography, 2013), I imagine, hit the mark with a lot of viewers as the intimate images are very idyllic and do “command attention through their minimal appearance” (British Journal of Photography, 2013). The viewers almost become lost in the photobook in which the candid and subtle images of the natural landscape “possess a quiet poetry that resonates softly” (British Journal of Photography, 2013). The images, whilst smaller and intimate almost speak to the viewer and hold a wealth of detail much like in Southam’s photobook. In an interview conducted with Walter Lewis, Gaffney stated that

“When you take away a lot of the descriptive information linked to a photograph, it opens up people’s ability to interpret it and bring their own experience to their work” (Gaffney and Lewis, 2013)

This comment by Gaffney not only emphasises his intent for this particular photobook but also shows that he strives to be interactive and create a connection with the viewers through his “Understated and lyrical” (British Journal of Photography, 2013) photographs. Furthering the idea of meditation, Gaffney also said in the interview that the “slow pace helps to calm the mind” (Gaffney and Lewis, 2013). In using wide angle shots as seen below, the viewer is reminded of the tranquillity, candid and still nature of the rural countryside which are all strong characteristics associated with a meditative state.

Similarities can be drawn further as there is also a strong sense of place in Southam’s photobook where he went and visited the site of the pond regularly over the course of six years. Southam attempts to tell a story about an attempted transformation within the subliminal landscape. Although appearing dangerous and threatening on the surface, it is coupled with a sense of wonder and amazement.

It does emit quite a relaxing and meditative state for the viewer as they can see a calmness and an intense relationship with the place rather than a spectacle of the landscape thus emphasising the personal touch within the photobook. Moreover, through surveying this set piece of land, the narrative in Southam’s body of work follows the idea of not only- “time and transformation and human impact on the environment” ( Genocchio, 2007) but also- “Presenting nature as a dynamic, living entity that is constantly changing and adapting to different forces” (Genocchio, 2007).

The intended narrative of this photobook is very strong and true even in today’s society. Therefore, this perhaps sets this photobook in the same vein as Gaffney’s as they both deal with forever evolving landscapes and attempted transformations in largely derelict and rural landscapes. Southam’s shots are mainly wide angle as seen in the photo above”. This is very effective in that the viewer is enticed and able to watch the subject, being the pond, evolve over the years and seasons from afar resulting in a less intimate affair for the viewer contrasting to Gaffney’s photobook which is not a progessive account like Southam’s. The second transformation did succeed in Southam’s series of work making the area overall more welcoming and more picturesque. (Daniels, 2018)

To conclude, I do believe both photobooks deal strongly with transformation and most importantly personal meditation. Gaffney, I feel, deals with meditation more extensively than Southam through strong compositions of candid and highly detailed photographs of the rural landscapes of Spain, Portugal and France. These photos allow for viewers to be interconnective and transcend into a place of serenity and peacefulness and so furthering the idea of walking as a form of a meditation. However, Southam emphasises the idea of transformation and the opinion that our attitude toward a place is not objective but also our involvement in altering a landscape seems to generate our affection and attachment toward landscape.

Bibliography

  1. Alfrey, (1st January, 2011), Tate, ‘Romanticism gets real’, Available from: https://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/romanticism-gets-real [Date accessed: 28th March, 2019]
  2. Artsy, (n.d.), ‘Jem Southam’, Available From: https://www.artsy.net/artist/jem-southam, [Date Accessed, 26th March, 2018]
  3. British Journal of Photography, (11th November, 2013), ‘ We Make the Path by Walking by Paul Gaffney’, Available from: https://www.bjp-online.com/2013/11/we-make-the-path-by-walking-by-paul-gaffney-book-review/, [Date Accessed, 26th March, 2019]
  4. Cornell University, (2005), ‘Upton Pyne: Photographs by Jem Southam’, Available from: https://museum.cornell.edu/exhibitions/upton-pyne-photographs-jem-southam, [Date Accessed, 26th March, 2019]
  5. Davis Museum, (2008), ‘Jem Southam Upton Pyne’, Available From: https://www.wellesley.edu/davismuseum/whats-on/past/node/36881, [Date Accessed, 29th March, 2019]
  6. Steven Daniels, (29 November 2018), British Art Studies, ‘Liquid Landscape: Southam, Constable, and the Art of the Pond’, Available from: https://www.britishartstudies.ac.uk/issues/issue-index/issue-10/liquid-landscape, [Date Accessed, 09th May, 2019]
  7. Paul Gaffney, (2013), ‘We Make the Path by Walking’, Available from: http://www.paulgaffneyphotography.com/We-Make-the-Path-by-Walking, [Date Accessed: 3rd April, 2019]
  8. Benjamin Genocchio, The New York Times, (16th September, 2007), ‘Capturing a Landscape That Won’t Stand Still’, Available from : https://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/16/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/16artsct.html, [Date Accessed: 27th April, 2019]
  9. Calin Kruse, (27th September, 2013), ‘Paul Gaffney: We Make the Path by Walking’, Available from: http://dienacht-magazine.com/2013/09/27/paul, [Date Accessed, 3rd April, 2019]
  10. Walter Lewis, Photomonitor, (March, 2014), ‘Paul Gaffney / We Make The Path By Walking, March 2014’, Available from: https://www.photomonitor.co.uk/we-make-the-path-by-walking-3/, [Date Accessed, 3rd May, 2019]
  11. Andrew Nadolski, On Landscape, (1st March, 2018), ‘Stories from the Land’, Available from: https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2013/03/jem-southam-interview/, [Date Accessed, 27th April, 2019]
  12. Gemma Padley, British Journal of Photography, (11th November, 2013), ‘We Make the Path by Walking by Paul Gaffney’, Available from: https://www.bjp-online.com/2013/11/we-make-the-path-by-walking-by-paul-gaffney-book-review/, [Date Accessed, 26th March, 2019]
  13. Photobook Store, (2013), ‘We Make the Path by Walking (Signed) Paul Gaffney’, Available From: https://www.photobookstore.co.uk/photobook-we-make-the-path-by-walking-_signed%5E.html, [Date Accessed, 6th April, 2019]
  14. Tate, (2003), ‘Jem Southam February 2001’, Available from: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/southam-february-2001-l03985, [Date Accessed, 26th April, 2019]
  15. Victoria and Albert Museum, (2005), ‘Landscape Photography by Jem Southam’, Available from: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/l/landscape-photography-jem southam/?gclid=CjwKCAjw5dnmBRACEiwAmMYGOTkMNXs08CA3XCIrQj_4BhCrvT3lwMc7BDi0jHadX5kPYAr7qR1kkxoC1VAQAvD_BwE, [Date Accessed, 26th March, 2019]
  16. Yale Center for British Art, (August, 2007), ‘Jem Southam: Upton Pyne’, Available from: https://britishart.yale.edu/exhibitions/jem-southam-upton-pyne, [Date Accessed, [26th April, 2019]
  17. Yale Daily News, (7th September, 2007), ‘Upton Pyne’: More than pond scum?’, Available from: https://yaledailynews.com/blog/2007/09/07/upton-pyne-more-than-pond-scum/, [Date Accessed, 6th April, 2019]
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