Reflections on Simon Roberts ‘We English’
What struck me most after looking at his contact sheets was just how fair he has tried to be to the subject. The accompanying essay by Stephen Daniels describes how increased access to the countryside has led to a degree of suspicion and snobbery around who should visit beauty spots, but this doesn’t come across in Roberts’ photographs. The overall effect is one of equal access for all.
Simon Roberts’ own commentary on the book shows just how much thought and planning he put into the project before it began, and this is demonstrated by the consistency of the images. This planning and the eventual execution give us a clear idea of his idea of how he sees the English at leisure. A side effect of this planning, as well as the detached tone of the chosen viewpoint, means there is only a small element of authorial intent. What we see in these images is very close to what we would see if we were actually there. We very much get a sense that the frame edge is only the end of our own field of vision, so that they seem quite natural without a sense of artistic effort.
Many are reminiscent of 17th & 18th century landscape painting, with most of the scene dominated by the sky and the land itself. People are present but shown as relatively insignificant. This isn’t always the case with other images focussing much more on people, although even here individual people are not the main centre of attention. This gives the overall set a sense of detachment, which is enhanced by his often choosing a high viewpoint from which to shoot. Roberts’s images do feature many different places that show quite a lot of what Daniels’ essay describes as ‘complicated cultural terrain’. A busy seaside resort and sublime seascape, peaceful bucolic countryside and suburban allotments, the one thing all these photographs have in common is people. If there is an outsider element to all of these, it isn’t suspicious; it seems more to be saying ‘this is us, take it or leave it’. Of course this may be just me being able to see myself as one of those depicted. I have at some point been at six or seven of the locations pictured and would have been one of those photographed there.
Compared with some of the other work that has been discussed in this part of the course, it is definitely true that these photographs work as well as they do because they are in colour. I can’t imagine these working anywhere near as monochrome images. In many case it is the people themselves that punctuate the scene with bright clothes. In B&W they would be much less visible altogether. Colour also reinforces the link to landscape painting with elements of the sublime and the picturesque featuring heavily among them.
Daniels, S. (s.d.) ‘The English Outdoors’ At: https://www.simoncroberts.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Stephen-Daniels-We-English-essay.pdf
Roberts, S. C. (s.d.) ‘We English’ At: https://www.simoncroberts.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/We-English-Plates.pdf