Documentary, Identity and Place – We English – Simon Roberts

England is not at all a single category but a set of relationships. The nation exists in tension. Its fellow members remain deeply divided among themselves, but at the same time they constantly prove themselves ready to unite around certain issues, talismans and images.

John Taylor

Simon Roberts’ website blurb…

Simon Roberts travelled across England in a motorhome between 2007 and 2008 for this portfolio of large-format tableaux photographs of the English at leisure. We English builds on his first major body of work, Motherland (2005), with the same themes of identity, memory and belonging… Photographing ordinary people engaged in diverse pastimes, Roberts aims to show a populace with a profound attachment to its local environment and homeland. He explores the notion that nationhood …what it means to be English – is to be found on the surface of contemporary life, encapsulated by banal pastimes and everyday leisure activities… Roberts finds beauty in the mundane and in the exploration of the relationship between people and place, and of our connections to the landscapes around us.

It is always refreshing to find a statement where a photographer cites his inspiration for a project that is fairly simple, down to earth and not setting out to change the world, ridicule it or feels some huge political motive driving them.

…born Croydon… my mother is a Northerner…(with) a London-born father … formative years were spent in Oxted…while holidays were often spent walking in the Lake District or visiting my grandparents in Angmering, a retirement town on the South Coast.

Initially, I was simply thinking about Englishness and how my upbringing had been quintessentially English. How much of this was an intrinsic part of my identity? In what ways was my idea of what constitutes an “English life” or English pastimes (if there are such things) different to those of others? My own memories of holidays, for example, were infused with very particular landscapes; the lush green-ness around Derwent Water or the flinty grey skies — and pebbles — of Angmering’s beaches. It seemed to me that these landscapes formed an important part of my consciousness of who I am and how I “remember” England.

 

This body of work makes me smile as I recognise so much of this myself, also having been born in Croydon and walking the South Downs Way, visiting Margate/Camber rather than Blackpool, walking past allotments on the way to school, watching the hoards make their way to Selhurst Park for the latest Palace game (my school used to be next door…we could watch the players train before they sold off part of their land to build Sainsburys!) driving across Dartmoor and seeing people having a picnic 3 yards from a parked car when the whole of the National Park is spread in front of them. Before reading the text and doing an in-depth analysis my gut reaction is that within this project, for me at least, Roberts has captured some of my background and upbringing.

In the International Journal of Photographic Art and Practice Gerry Badger stated:

We English is a complex body of work – photographically simple in one sense, but imagistically complicated, with many different inferences.

I have been fortunate to have had sight of this book and appreciate the layout; the narrative captions not only provide additional autobiographical insight to this project and the accompanying photographs but also helps the viewers different cultural backgrounds and experiences.

 

 

Roberts’ approach to completing this project was very unique, unlike others, who journey by themselves or enlist the help of others within the Arts sphere, he decided to take off for 5/6 months in ‘a 1993 Talbot Express Swift Capri motor-home,  with a two year old, a pregnant wife and my apparatus of choice: a 5×4 large-format camera.’

Another quality that differentiates Roberts from, say for example, Parr or Dench, is his focus on the landscape, and from the relationship they have with that landscape, rather than concentrating on their behaviour. His formal training as a cultural geographer probably helped to inform this approach. Many of the landscape scenes incorporate natural barriers and divisions: rivers, trees, lake sides, pavements and hedges create these physical divisions, just as the people within them create their own personal spaces.

His visual style was also greatly influenced by 16th-century Dutch and Flemish landscape painters, in particular he names Avercamp, Van Valckenborch and Bruegel, ‘who depicted winter scenes teeming with life.’

I decided to produce a series of detailed colour landscape photographs – tableaux – that would record places where people congregate for a common purpose and shared experience. I wanted to engage with the idea of the collective, of groups populating the landscape.

Ultimately, I wanted to produce a body of work that was beautiful; in which England’s landscape, no matter how banal, was rendered in an unashamedly lyrical way.

Furthermore, unlike Dench or Parr, who get in close to their subjects, Roberts shows a slight detachment in his high vantage point observations; Ansel Adams like he would set his tripod up  atop his camper-van  and, instead of focusing on an individual family unit he took in a sweeping vista, to reveal a myriad of families doing the same. Within the frame he manages to capture minute detail that you only truly appreciate when you see large format prints.

Exercise

Read the article on We English in Eight magazine (issue 25, summer 2009).

Download Stephen Daniels’ introductory essay to We English and the relevant contact sheets.

Write a short reflective commentary…so here goes…

Firstly, apart from all of the research completed above, having read the Foto8 interview I discovered a few more useful insights with regards to this project: Roberts had quite strict personal parameters and edited his images harshly, many photographs not making the set as they appeared too surreal, humerous, didn’t have the correct people:ground ratio, did not visually represent England, leisure or fit the colour palette he was hoping to present. This is likened to that of Joel Sternfeld and Stephen Shore, having seen talks and owning books by both of these highly regarded photographers I can agree with that overview. His stern editing certainly gave the set a visual cohesiveness.

Secondly, if we disregard the visual and artistic elements, the other main points I took away from it was the importance of marketing, support and having an audience for your work. After his success with Motherland he was guaranteed a publisher but not a readership or sales. He was fortunate to have a friend who was a BBC website picture editor – the project was launched on BBC new online on St Georges’s Day reaching a culturally diverse audience; he set up an interactive website, whilst the work was in progress the Times published a weekly dispatch asking for venue/event suggestions from the general public, almost guaranteeing a project people would feel to be relevant and a readership before the book was even published.

Roberts managed to secure grants from both the Arts Council and the National Media Museum as his work followed in the tradition of Tony Ray-Jones and Bill Brandt, ensuring they had an updated, more contemporary take on England for their archives.

Finally, in summary: if you want to make documentary work that sells  you have to be: slightly unique, but also follow a tradition so people will comfortably accept your work, be brutal in your editing, be committed, do your research, be prepared to be a publicity/marketing whore, embrace social media and take advantage of all and any contacts you have!

 

Research

Foto8 Issue 25 https://issuu.com/foto8/docs/issue25 [Accessed 26 March 2017]

Gerry Badger, Ag – The International Journal of Photographic Art & Practice, Issue
58/Winter 2010

Jorg M Colberg
http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/2009/10/review_we_english_by_simon_roberts/ %5BAccessed 26 March 2017]

Lens Culture https://www.lensculture.com/articles/simon-roberts-we-english  %5BAccessed 26 March 2017]

Taylor, J. (1994). A Dream of England. Manchester, Manchester University Press. accessed via https://books.google.co.uk/books [Accessed 26 March 2017]

The English Outdoors http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/weenglish.pdf [Accessed 26 March 2017]

We English http://www.simoncroberts.com/work/we-english/ [Accessed 26 March 2017]

We English http://www.we-english.co.uk [Accessed 26 March 2017]

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