Simon Roberts – We English

Copyright Simon Roberts 2009, courtesy of Chris Boot Ltd & Simon Roberts

When I first became aware of Simon Roberts photobook project that would eventually develop into We English, I was very intrigued by the concept, his past photographic work in Russia, and what he was attempting to investigate in his own homeland. And probably as well for personal reasons, that although I am a sixth generation American, my family roots are traced back to Northern England. So I was also interested in learning more about my really distant cousins.

Robert’s photobook We English is a wonderful mixing pot; an autobiographical and cultural narration placed in generous landscape settings about those who call themselves “English”. It is not meant to be an exhaustive examination, but he has selected “English leisure” activities that occur in the open, which means frequently his photographs appear like peopled landscapes. Roberts also appears to have investigated a broad cross-section of English leisure as to be inclusive of most social groups, from those who attend the horse racing and polo matches to the banks of the river for swimming or bustling amusement parks and football (soccer) games.

Knowing that Roberts is using a large format camera, which is usually difficult to ignore, nevertheless, even when standing in front of a large crowd, he seems to have become invisible. It usually takes a while to find someone in the midst of the activity that has direct eye contact with his lens, otherwise, everybody appears to be absorbed in the activity at hand.

While utilizaing the large format camera and what appears is a small aperture, Roberts creates beautiful color photographs that are rich in content, color saturation, sharp in focus and loaded with details. There are generous amounts of geographical terrain in his photographs and consistently composed to allow enough sky to provide environmental clues about the climate of the region. All of the photographs are framed horizontally which provides an expansive feeling the images.

As to the photographs, it is still difficult for me to really say that I can understand something about a group of people while viewing a single moment in time. There are some interesting clues that after a time I might be able to say that based on my own experience, this is what I feel and maybe to extrapolate that to what others might be experiencing. This is one of the points of Andrew Phelps photobook Not Niigata, that even when I am looking at a foreign society, and think that I see something familiar, that I still can not really say that I understand their society or culture. It is best to admit that I don’t really understand much at all.

Nevertheless as an American, there are English activities that I can relate to; seaside walks on expansive beaches, swimming in a river or creek, picnicking in a park, hiking a trail, bicycling, sledding during the winter (when we visit the mountains), fishing at a pond, touring with a camper, attending amusement parks, playing a round of golf, an afternoon riding go-carts, attending a sporting event, and boating on a lake.

It is in studying the details of Roberts’s photographed events that I start picking out the differences between my personal experiences and actual content that is evident.  The collision of fact with perception forces me to question what it exactly that I see. Yes, I recognize the activity and it does appear the same, but in fact it is different. Once that door is open, then these seeming simple photographs become much more complex and bundled together in this book, weave a very enjoyable narrative.

The complexity of another culture and society is exemplified when there are unique activities photographs, such as the formalized bird shootings, a Mad Maldom Mud Race, the Haxey Hood (hunt), polo matches, gardening Allotments (green space gardens and accompanying shed), and pigeon racing. Roberts photographs English events that I label as cultural oddities, such as the semi-formal picnic, when a man needs a nice bow-tie to complement the occasion. I also observe the activities occurring in what appears as unique English terrain of steep rolling hills and valleys or adorned with the ruins of a castle.

It appears that a day on the beach may require a number of layers of clothing to apparently to stay warm and dry. Usually, as previously noted, Roberts photographs are inclusive of the sky, which is predominately overcast, cloudy and moody appearing, which coincides with the beach photographs with the individuals wearing the additional layers of clothing. By contrast, it may be necessary for me to dress in a similar manner on our Southern California beaches about one month per year.

In the Introductory essay, Stephen Daniels states; “The precise places and pursuits of the English Outdoors – racegoing, seaside promenading, picnicking, angling, hiking and heritage visiting – may have changed over the past century, but much appears to remain the same. Some older traditional pastimes such as street football and cheese rolling have either survived or been renovated, even reinvented. How far these places and pursuits are regarded as forms of national or even patriotic identity by the participants themselves, rather than by those who merely observe the English Outdoors, remains an intriguing question.”

In Roberts Afterword commentary he states; “…I knew I’d begun to develop a formal composition to my framing which would define the direction of the work. I would move away from photographing the individual and engage instead with the idea of the collective, of groups of people populating the landscape. Photographing from elevated positions (often from the roof our motorhome, as it turned out) would enable me to get a greater sense of people’s interaction with the landscape and one another. I also decided that the figures would be relatively small in the frame, although not always so small that you couldn’t make out some facial expressions, what they were wearing and their activities….I liked the idea of what appeared to be predominantly pastoral landscapes becoming, on closer inspection, multilayer canvases, rich in detail and meaning.”

Roberts narrative captions in the Commentary section provide an additional autobiographical insight to this project and the accompanying photographs, such as the photography of the kids sledding in the winter at the 17th hole of the Tandridge Golf Course in Oxted.  The commentary provides a new layer of meaning to aid in both seeing and interpreting the photograph with his “local English” knowledge that is probably not readily event to those who are examining these photographs with a different cultural background and experience.

What I enjoy in these photographs: color, design elements, details, balance of the photographs, all of which allows me to dream and free associate. This book is an extraction of a certain group of people in nice circumstances, on holiday, when things should be right. Even though by the end of the book, do we really know that much more about the English culture? Perhaps we may gain a small insight and a hint of the English society, but that does not take away from the enjoyment of Roberts’s photographs.

The large horizontal format book elegantly matched to the large format horizontal and detailed color photographs, classically designed with a small white margin around each photograph, as though looking through a window. Essay by Stephen Daniels and Afterword by Simon Roberts.

by Douglas Stockdale

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