Returning to the scene

I recently saw the Jem Southam exhibition at the Royal West Academy, in which he returns to the same stretch of river to rephotograph it repeatedly over a period of 5 years.

7 Swans – Jem Southam, A bend in the river ©Jem Southam

A Bend in the River displays a series of the same name structured in two parts representing arrival (at dusk) and departure (at dawn). The images were taken at a particular spot on a riverbank where Southam became lost in contemplation one December evening. He returned to the same spot each day during the rest of the winter. Over the following five years between 2015-2020 Southam continued creating series in the same location. The ever-changing surface of the water, passing clouds, trees waving in the breeze, ducks gliding across the river and swans flying to roost caught Southam’s attention and what began as a passing digital photo led to powerful ongoing series of deeply affecting photography.

On the same trip, I picked up a copy of Stephen Gill’s book, The Pillar, in which he uses a camera trap to photograph from the same spot (a pillar in a field) as animals come and go, triggering the shutter by their presence.

Both of these series of images have a narrative quality that emerges from the return visit (or the continuous presence of the camera, in Gill’s case). It’s an interesting counterpoint to the work of the Bechers, say, who photograph only in different places, but objects of the same type. They cut the world through a different plane and so reveal a different image.

Joanna L. Cresswell writes about the urge to return to the scene for Lens Culture:

Other photographers are drawn to documenting how a specific place is used in a variety of ways by a variety of people. Two photographers that explore this theme are Tomiyasu Hayahisa, who repeatedly photographed a pingpong table in a public park in his Berlin neighborhood, and Ellen Mitchell, who photographs the benches on the boardwalk of Seaside Heights in New Jersey over and again. Hayahisa’s pictures are always framed the same way—from the vantage point of his apartment window. “One day, in 2012, I was watching people coming to the table and I thought they were going to play table tennis, but they didn’t. They didn’t play anything—they just sat there and left after a while. From that moment on, I started photographing the people at the table,” he says. And indeed the people in his pictures are seen using the table to lie on, to sit and chat, to skate and so on. Hayahisa has long been interested in a fixed-point-observation style of photographing, he says, which he believes is a way of truly seeing objects and scenes and perceiving their potential.

Scenes of Return – Seven series by seven photographers | Essay by Joanna L. Cresswell | | | LensCulture
From the series “TTP,” 2012-2016 © Tomiyasu Hayahisa

This image has a kind of Hitchcock Rear Window quality to it, which again encourages a very particular kind of narrative, which I’m not sure is accessible in any other kind of serial format.

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