Simon Roberts: A Global View of Home

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday November 1, 2018

Unfolding political events and breaking news are not generally thought of as subject matter for photographs meant to be seen on gallery walls rather than in the news media. But Simon Roberts, whose background includes university studies in human geography, has pushed the limits of his medium to do just that.

The implicit theme of Simon’s work over the last ten years has been the apparent desire of people who identify with their territory in having a sense of belonging to it and to their neighbors. Whether through the Russians he photographed from Moscow to Vladivistock for Motherland(Chris Boot 2007) or his fellow countrymen, met through countless encounters in We English(Chris Boot 2009), he has sought meaning in commonality. He reveals how a sense of Englishness imbues people across different classes and backgrounds, mostly viewed through the experience of leisure, and largely set in pastoral or seaside landscapes. 

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, Shoreham Air Show, West Sussex, 2007

But when his homeland began to suffer the effects of the 2008 economic downturn, Simon’s attention shifted to a different landscape—one in which austerity measures have created an inbred sense of crisis, worsened since the Brexit vote. The opportunity to look closely at his countrymen going about their daily routines in their own neighborhoods came about when he was appointed the official photographer of Britain's 2010 General Election.

The almost dreamy atmosphere that inhabits We English  has lately given way to a palpable sense of anxiety and uncertainty among people who have gathered for events related to social change, as published in his recent book,  Merrie Albion: Landscape Studies of a Small Island. Student uprisings and anti-fracking protests; pro- and anti- Brexit events; and historical re-enactments are just a few of the situations that drew him to gritty town squares, parks, churchyards, military airstrips and mosques. Along the way he has visually charted the consequences of globalization, as seen in the simplest activities at a local scale.

Eid al-Fitr Celebrations, Jamia Mosqque, Green Street, Bristol

In We English, Simon takes a fairly close point of view of smallish groups of people, which underscores his attachment to his subjects, clearly expressed in the title. In Merrie Albion, however, he takes a long view from a high perspective in photographs of masses of people who have left their homes to gather in public spaces. You might think this would create a feeling of distance, yet it has the opposite effect, as if: We are all in this together.

Annual Eton College Procession of Boats, River Thames, Windsor, Berkshire, 2017

Several thoughtful essays on the subject of art, politics—and simply being—along with the extended captions that accompany each section of the book add a complex layer of understanding to  Merrie Albion.  While the events portrayed will not be recognizable to non-English without the explanatory texts, the public emotion conveyed is perceived in a glance. The almost bleached-out seaside lighting in the photo below, for example, conveys a sense of impermanence that has inflected a longstanding local event. Simon has conveyed, in this picture, a sense of estrangement of the people from their place and time.

As Americans face the uncertainty—and the opportunities—that lie in the upcoming mid-term elections, a close look at Simon Robert’s Merrie Albion will surely shed light—as well as an appropriate tinge of darkness—on who decides how our social, cultural, and global landscape should be organized, and how they arrive to that privilege.

Broadstairs Dickens Festival, Isle of Thanet, 2008

A selection of images from across Simon’s career will be presented at Flowers Gallery/New York, with an opening reception/book signing on Thursday, November 15, from 6 to 8 pm. 529 West 20th Street, NY, NY  Info.
Simon will be in conversation with Bill Hunt on Saturday, November 17th. Please contact the gallery for info. 439 1700
For more on Simon Roberts, go here. For more on Merrie Albion: Landscape Studies of a Small Island (Dewi Lewis 2017), go here All photographs © Simon Roberts, courtesy of Flowers Gallery New York.
For the DART feature on Motherland, by Simon Roberts, go here. CV19.EX.BOOK


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