We English by Simon Roberts, “Banal Nationalism” in Landscape? is a journal article by Karine Chambefort-Kay, Université Paris-Est Créteil, from the new issue of Journée d’études, entitled “The American and British Nations in Contemporary Landscape Photography” (December 2014)
This paper studies the case of a landscape photography project by British photographer Simon Roberts: We English—the project comprising the book published by Chris Boot in 2009, exhibitions of the large format prints of the photographs, and the artist’s dedicated website with a blog and forum for the public to propose subjects. We address the question of English national identity in Simon Roberts’s photos through the concept of “banal nationalism” coined in 1995 by Michel Billig. The first part draws on Billig’s thesis that the nation is “flagged” in the most banal everyday environment and activities, and discusses whether Simon Roberts’s documentary photographs evidence such subliminal national “flagging”. The second part shows the limits of the concept of “banal nationalism” when studying We English because of the complex, collaborative and reflexive nature of the project. By revealing how personal and intertextual references inform both the photographer’s and the viewer’s perception, the artist documents the dialectical process and negotiations at work in national identification. The third part contends that this dynamic approach of Englishness allows Roberts to propose his own re-imagining of the homeland.
On writing about my working practice for the project, Chambefort-Kay comments:
“A vast framework of references is the backbone of the whole project, and it is made visible through various devices. Simon Roberts opts for transparency on the genealogy of his pictures and on his authorial choices. He questions himself and his audience on the cultural filters and the modes of perception that inform their understanding of landscape. Therefore it is crucial to take into account the whole project, that is, to include both the blog and the pictures in our analysis to appreciate the full scope and impact of We English. Beyond merely documenting the English outdoors, Simon Roberts reveals the different ways in which people connect with the landscape both in nature and in pictures. He offers an insight into the mechanisms through which the national community is constantly re-created in landscape, showing that everything is negotiated individually and collectively.”
And in conclusion, writes:
“We English offers a renewed vision of England. New forms of cohesion and belonging are evidenced, but they are not exclusively found in urban areas. Simon Roberts does not reject the national frame, but reinvents it, by revealing the interactions and relations involved in national identification. The photographs of We English and the whole project actually display the openness of conviviality, which “makes a nonsense of closed, fixed and reified identity and turns attention toward the always unpredictable mechanisms of identification” (Gilroy, 2005, xvi). The nation is re-imagined through a new, dynamic, open vision of England.”
You can download a pdf of the full article here.
Chambefort-Kay recently completed a PhD entitled “Ecritures photographiques des identités collectives, Grande-Bretagne, 1990-2010”, which deals with many British photographers and exhibitions from the period and includes some chapters about We English and The Election Project.
Perspectives on Place by J.A.P Alexander is a new book exploring the history of landscape photography and looks critically at how contemporary photographers continue to find new and innovative ways of engaging with the landscape and their surroundings. It looks at the visual approaches that have been adopted by photographers and artists to facilitate the communication of ideas and themes, as well as more abstract concepts. Practical issues, such as effective composition and managing challenging lighting conditions are also discussed.
Alexander references We English in the chapter Landscape and Power – Inspiring Nationhood. He writes:
“Simon Roberts’s major project We English is a survey of the contemporary English landscape and picks out peculiarities and eccentricities, as well as more commonplace activities of its inhabitants. While the project is likely to be immediately accessible to British audiences, there is a danger this kind of project might leave foreign audiences at loss as to how to interpret the subject matter or even how to confine a nation to conformed stereotypes.
Roberts’s work has been compared to Martin Parr’s Think of England (2001), which isolates English stereotypes more explicitly. Roberts’s photographs are, of course, created and read in a landscape paradigm. The photographer looks specifically at the diversity of English leisure activities in relation to the landscape, ranging from the bizarre – the annual Mad Maldon Mud Race in Essex – to the intimate – Roberts’s photograph of the South Downs in Sussex shows what we assume is a young couple relaxing in a field, a curious echo of the pastoral motif of young villagers courting. As well as the presentation of clichés, such as the couple picnicking barely a few meters away from their car in the Yorkshire Dales, Roberts challenges stereotypes about the English landscape.”
The respected Collector Daily, reviews Pierdom exhibition at Klompching.
The exhibition runs until 21st December 2013
JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 large scale color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are c-prints, made between 2010 and 2013. The prints are each available in two sizes: 20×24 (in editions of 7) and 48×60 (in editions of 4); there are 3 large prints and 6 small prints on display. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Dewi Lewis (here).
Comments/Context: Simon Roberts’ recent series Pierdom is a terrific example of a photographic project that functions best when seen together as a group, either in book form or as a gallery show. While each of Roberts’ well crafted images of English seaside piers can of course stand alone, the ideas that form the foundation of the project come through more clearly when the images can resonate with each other.
My first reaction to Roberts’ effort to document each of the remaining 58 “pleasure piers” in England was that it had more than a passing conceptual kinship with the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, even through their visual styles aren’t remotely alike. Both have applied a patient, methodical approach to capturing vanishing forms of vernacular architecture, with the goal of preserving their details before they disappear completely. Roberts’ images are a taxonomy of Victorian decorations and construction methods: sturdy pilings, arched canopies and pavilions, elegant ironwork light posts, and long boardwalks dotted with booths and carnival rides. Seen side by side, the photographs provide a comprehensive picture of these variations, and of the many modern additions and entertainments that have transformed some of the piers in recent years.
What also comes through when seen in a group is the compositional innovation Roberts’ has applied to this subject. The off season piers are captured from nearly every possible angle, from straight down the boardwalk and up underneath the pilings, to down from an elevated vantage point somewhere nearby and stepped way back to see the piers in the context of the surrounding cities and land forms. There are close ups and long views, sweeping asymmetrical vistas taken from the beach, and images that revel in the atmospheric weather (fog, greyness, snow and even the occasional glory of sunlight that pokes through). The photographs find balance between land and seascapes, interrupted by the long fingers of man stretching out from the shoreline.
What resonates most strongly in these works is a sense of faded romance, of comfortable nostalgia for the quirkiness and fun that these piers represent. Donkey rides, trampolines, and the Crazy House roller coaster point to the easy going escapist joy to be found here, and the continued presence of hulking iron carcasses and algae covered concrete foundations is a testament to how ingrained in the collective consciousness these landmarks have become – better to let them rot and decay in the shallow water (and use them for an impromptu wine party) than to tear them down and forget their warm memories entirely.
All in, this is a deftly self-contained project, with a deceptively rich and sophisticated set of underlying constructs. Everyone loves a carnival, and these pictures record for posterity the nuances of a quintessentially English variant.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced in rising editions, based on size. The 20×24 prints range between $2400 and $8000, while the 48×60 prints range between $4800 and $12800. Roberts’ work has not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.
Pierdom is Sean O’Hagan’s ‘Photography Book of the Month’ and reviewed in today’s Observer:
“Piers provide a walk on the sea without the disadvantage of being seasick,” declared the poet of all things quintessentially English, John Betjeman, “and are havens of fresh air and freedom which we can ill afford to lose.” Betjeman was one of the founders of the National Piers Society, an organisation that continues to campaign to safeguard the future of the 58 surviving piers in Britain. He would have been delighted with this book.
Pierdom is another instalment in Simon Roberts‘ ongoing visual documentation of modern England. He has photographed every British pier using a 4×5 plate camera, which has also captured the landscape from which they extend, the sea around them and the sky above them.
Roberts has photographed some piers from a distant elevation and others up close from underneath their steel and wood structures. Thus, Deal pier in Kent seem to stretch to the horizon, while Aberystwyth looks like an industrial sculpture. Others, like the “lost” pier of Brighton West or Hastings pier, both greatly damaged by fire, seem like malformed things that may at any moment fall into the sea. (As I write, work has begun on the reconstruction of Hastings pier, but Brighton’s West pier remains lost, though there are ambitious plans to build a towering pier in the sky at its entrance. This does not seem right, somehow.)
Like his previous book, We English, Pierdom is a kind of topography of England and Englishness. There is a similar sense of stillness in many of the large-format landscapes, as well as a sense of the abiding otherness of the English seaside town. Blackpool now looks much like Blackpool then, or is it just the almost Kodachrome colours that make the ornate entrance look oddly old-fashioned? Sandown Culver pier on the Isle of Wight is a different kind of study in muted colour and atmosphere, with a hint of silver sunlight on the horizon where the grey of the sea meets the lighter grey of the sky.
This is a much cooler and detached approach than, say, Martin Parr’s seaside photographs, and shares a certain similarity of style with John Davies‘s documentary photographs of British landscapes. Here and there, though, there are hints of John Hinde’s postcard vision of Britain as one big unreal leisure theme park, especially in Roberts’ wonderful diptych of Walton-on-the-Naze pier.
A homage, then, to the enduring vision of the Victorian pier designers, but also to an England that still values the bracing benefits of “a walk on the sea without the disadvantage of being seasick”. And a very beautiful book from a master of stillness, light and landscape.
You can download a pdf of the review here.
The current issue of Aesthetica Magazine (Issue 54, August – September 2013) features a review of Pierdom under the title ‘Iconic Britain”:
“Roberts’ new exhibition and book of the same name, Pierdom, capture the nostalgia and the altering function of piers….
Acknowledging their importance over time, Roberts compares the original architecture structures with their modern interpretation and usage. For example, his images of abandoned piers such as Birnbeck Pier (2012) are contrasted with those like Ryde Pier (2012), in which the local community and everyday function of the landscape are represented by a skateboarding park that appears at the forefront of the picture. It was this combination of culture and society that caught the photographer’s interest, discovering an ingrained fascination with the relationship between humanity, the surrounding environment and important British pastimes.
Roberts records the symbolic constructs with great technical precision. His images capture peripheral details, which include the surrounding landscape and have the effect of enriching the observation of each work. Utilising formal devices associated with the picturesque, the pieces align audiences with contemporary issues, acknowledging the precarious connection between society, nature and urban environments. Through deciding to survey a small part of British history and Landscape, he is able to undertake an architectural and anthropological study of the country.”
You can download a pdf of the review.
“Roberts’ manner is calm. He shows people small in the landscape, clustered into groups rather than isolated as individuals. He likes to shoot from relatively high, so we see patterns. It is partly a show about ritual in the landscape, the strange things we do to feel we belong. It is partly about how the very numbers of us who come to enjoy the land spoil the thing we admire. A strong theme is about movement, but Roberts shrewdly notices how much movement is local. Playing golf still has something pastoral about it, even in the shadow of the very power station which employed you.
These elegant pictures invite multiple readings, but they do it with confidence and zest. With flashes of wit, humanity, and abundant respect for his photographic predecessors, Simon Roberts has added a good one to the canon of surveys of the English.”