FOTO8, September 8, 2009
Simon Roberts Interviewed — Guy Lane
'"The trick is to tune in to the mundane and the everyday, the kind of things that you take for granted, the things you pass and wouldn't necessarily see as a photograph."—Simon Roberts
As pictures from his road trip around England go on display in London and New York, Simon Roberts talks to Guy Lane about people, places and his new book - We English.
GL: I see the cover of We English is similar to that of your earlier book on Russia, Motherland - how would you describe the relationship between the two books?
SR: The idea was to build on the Motherland project, and the England book very much stemmed from the work that I’d done in Russia. While I was particularly struck by the sense of belonging in Russia,I felt that I didn’t really feel particularly connected to England as such; and so I wanted togo on a journey around my own homeland to try and look for the same bonding between people and the landscape.
Did you find working in your native country a more challenging project than the foreign project?
Yes of course, because when you go abroad everything is exotic isn’t it, in the sense that everything you see is unfamiliar. Whereas the trick in England- or in your own backyard - is to tune in to the mundane and the everyday, thekind of things that you take for granted, the things you pass and wouldn’t necessarily see as a photograph, if you like. Take Sunday league football, for example - I drive around and I see it all the time, but to actually turn mycamera on it was more difficult. So the whole idea was to find and look atthings I wouldn’t necessarily have looked at before.
Was there anything you particularly wanted to avoid? Did you foresee any problematic areas?
Well,I set myself criteria. So, for example, by choosing leisure and by choosing only exterior landscapes, I immediately ruled out any number of photographs:bingo, shopping centres and so on, for instance. When I set out on the journey I didn’t expect the work to be as pastoral as it became; but bringing it together afterwards, that was just how the edit worked.
Also, I didn’t want to photograph the more extreme, clichéd or expected events - though of course you’ve got to do some of those things: there are a couple that made it into the book - Haxey Hood or the Mad Maldon Mud Race. But I didn’t want it to become a shopping list of eccentric Brits.
The Haxey Hood picture reminded me of Homer Sykes’ book, Once a Year, from the 70’s…
Well, throughout the work there are connections to other people’s photographs. I’m not denying that, thematically, some of these pictures have already been done. I actually went to Bradford to look at the Tony Ray-Jones archive before I even went on the journey because I think it was important for me to look at what had gone before. So I’m putting myself in that lineage of photographers – people like Ray-Jones and Martin Parr - that have taken the British (or in my case English) landscape as a subject.
But I tried not to be derivative in the way that I photographed them; I was looking for a very distinct visual aesthetic, I suppose.
With reference to Sykes, I remember an interview in which he said that he always took care to avoid photographing cars, and indeed other photographers, or anything which might appear too contemporary - presumably because he was trying to construct an untainted vision of England’s supposedly enduring traditional customs.
I noticed a train in the background of one of your pictures…maybe Sykes would have waited for it to pass?
You see, I would argue the other way. I think cars are very interesting in pictures because of the very reason that they can date a photograph. I mean, look at Stephen Shore’s pictures and nearly every one has a car in it! I wanted to make my work very contemporary, so I didn’t exclude those kinds of things. I had more difficulty, though, in that at an event, there are always a number of people who are also photographing, or a number of people who are wearing bright yellow security jackets, or scenes would be cluttered by advertising billboards. I think those things just became annoying in the end.
Formally, and in terms of composition, your photographs are quite rigorously repetitive – your use of an elevated vantage point, for example.
That was very deliberate. You need to have that higher perspective to show something of people’s relationship with the landscape. So in the picture of Woolacombe - where you get to see the beach going off into the distance - the perspective enables you to show the idea of people creating quite private colonies on a public beach: you can see all the little windbreakers that they’ve got round them and the private spaces.
I think one of my favourite pictures is the Keynes Country Park Beach where you’ve got the guy with the Mohican on the left, the tents and the deck chairs, and the couple who’ve got these bargain 20-bag packets of crisps (though there’s just two of them), and the guy wearing his socks with his shorts on. For me, the richest of the pictures are those where you get a lot of detail and you have to study them for a while. So the formal composition is very simple but it’s a way of looking at scenes where there’s a lot of information. The pictures are almost like maps to be read; and the details extend the interest in them. I think a picture like that will have historical interest - it’s almost anthropological in some ways: England at play in 2008.
My initial impression was that the book presented a view of middle-class leisure but, re-visiting it, I saw that there was more going on.
Yes, there is that thing about class: how do you photograph class without being stereotypical? For instance, the picture of Derby Day – newspaper pictures of the event are usually of people in top hats and tails. But what struck me was that there were about five or six thousand people (at most) dressed like that, and then there were 70,000 more - in the centre of the race course - having a big party. I thought the party was far more representative of the Epsom Derby.
And the Cirencester polo picture was interesting because that morning we’d been two miles away in a local park where people were having barbeques and throwing frisbees. Yet, an hour later, were just down the road where there was this private polo gathering of the upper class - it was interesting that within a very small geographical area there were these two very distinct class differences in terms of leisure that, at the same time, were in some ways very similar. Both were sporting occasions and people were picnicking out of their cars; it’s just that one’s a Bentley and another’s a white van.
It occurred to me that the book does not present a Romantic view of the countryside, or of people’s interaction with it. The landscapes appear quite well-populated, almost – you could argue - commodified by consumers.
But isn’t that what leisure is? If I’d had an entire book of depopulated landscapes it would have been a very different beast really. I wasn’t trying to make a chocolate box photograph of England. I was looking at leisure and at how people use the landscape – so, yes, a lot of the times, and particularly in the new towns, there are manufactured scenes.
But in terms of the lighting, the colour, and the use of atmosphere, there are elements that can often be seen in Romantic landscape painting. Certainly the countryside appears more beautiful than it does in a Martin Parr version of England. I wasn’t trying to be overtly critical - even, for example, in the photograph of Blackpool Beach which is framed so that you can see the litter in the foreground. But it’s not a critical take on the scene like Parr’s Last Resort, for example. It’s well-trodden ground, and I was trying to do it differently.
The book’s title suggests an engagement with – not just landscape - but the idea of Englishness.
Part of the reason for calling it We English was the fact that I tried to involve the audience in the photograph-taking by having a website where people could invite me to come and photograph things. It was a way of trying to create an interesting dialogue, so that the work wasn’t just about my representation of England,but was also about other people’s commentary. In the end the ideas became more interesting as a document – you can go to the website and download it and read it alongside my photographs. But of course the photographs are my England, or my way of seeing the landscape. In terms of what that says about a particular sense of Englishness,I‘m not quite sure. That’s really for other people to decide.