Last week I was at a gallery opening with my friend Manj and, over the buzz of the crowd, she shouted in my ear that this kind of thing is why she’s afraid she’ll never be able to leave New York.
One of the most amazing things about living in this city, and something I think people (though happily not Manj!) quickly get used to, is the phenomenal level of access to art and artists. I was reminded of this again upon attending the intimate and interesting gallery talk by Simon Roberts about his newest body of work, We English, at Klompching Gallery in DUMBO.
Had Roberts been a self-obsessed, snooty jerk, I still would have fallen for these images, with their entrancing depth in landscape, poetic attention to the quiet places and formal composition set by the horizon line. But, to my delight, he was utterly intelligent, well-spoken and accessible.
In the discussion, he spoke of how he approached the project by giving himself guidelines to follow: 4×5 format, shooting landscapes, looking at places of leisure. The strategy paid off for him and We English feels like a cohesive body of work; the group of images work well together but are also strong photographs individually.
Roberts said that he wanted to “embrace the notion of beauty,” which I think he does well and without venturing into sentimentality. He also addressed the challenges of photographing a familiar place and found that he really had to look at the mundane and the “edges of spaces”.
One of the questions he posed that I found most compelling was that of representation. He set out thinking about his own English identity and what it means to have an English life. But he also didn’t want the project to be based entirely on his experiences, so he created a website where he wrote about his route and people could contact him with suggestions of places to photograph. He also managed a deal where he ran a full-page photograph once a week in a major newspaper, which led to more followers and contributors. (As well as money to fund his travels. Brilliant.) It’s a virtually impossible task to capture a country, but his efforts to reach out to his fellow countrypeople and shoot as many places as possible are admirable.
If I could start buying pieces to collect today, I think I’d begin with a photograph from this body of work. But, as I’m not quite at that level yet, I had to settle on getting the book. A big splurge, but a great present to myself on my 24th birthday. Maybe by 25 I’ll have a new print on the wall.