Collections of English landscape photographs are often found in provincial book shops, but they usually contain black-and-white images from a period typically spanning 1890-1950. While these volumes are useful records of past times, they provide little clue to present English outdoor pursuits or the current appearance of the English countryside. Perhaps that is not their purpose, but they can appear monotonously monochrome, both in content and style. We English is the antidote. This series of photographs is exclusively in colour, and the book is large-format so that each picture can be viewed clearly at arm's length, giving a broad perspective to the panoramic landscapes within it.
At the beginning, by way of introduction, there is an essay by Stephen Daniels on "The English Outdoors," which effectively provides an historical context for the work. The photographs themselves were taken from August 2007 to September 2008, and each month of that period is represented in the book, except for November 2007. This, then, is a record of over a year in England, but the weather in each frame is surprisingly sunny and dry, giving the lie to the notion that the English countryside is universally grey, dull and damp. The photographs cover the length and breadth of England, giving a balanced view of the country as a whole.
At the back of the book, Roberts helpfully provides background notes to each picture. He also gives a short autobiographical summary: he was born in Croydon, South London, in 1974, to a Northern mother (from Cumbria) and a father from London, but he grew up in Oxted, "a provincial town in Surrey's commuter belt," and spent family holidays "walking in the Lake District (usually in the rain) or visiting my grandparents in Angmering-on-Sea, a retirement town on the South Coast. Childhood memories, and the range of associations and images they suggest, became the starting point for We English."
Many of the photographs have a style reminiscent of landscape paintings by well-known nineteenth-century English artists. As such, the book looks less like a series of photographs and more like a calendar in oils. Each picture has a personal touch, which avoids the kind of antiseptic artificiality associated with much wide-angle photography. This is not Notes from a Small Island: Roberts presents England on an epic scale, with huge, pale blue skies, expanses of green hills, rugged mountain terrain, and deserts of seaside sand. Camel Estuary, Padstow, Cornwall depicts half a dozen people in two groups of three, each group walking their dogs in the middle of a very bright yellow sandy beach, with the slate-grey sea in the middle ground and two thirds of the page occupied by banks of puffy white clouds. All the walkers are jacketed against the wind, and they are passing each other, going in opposite directions. A question suggests itself: did they greet each other, or walk on by without a word?
While there is romance in these scenes, there is also an earthy reality. They show the English as they are today, but many of the activities in which they are engaged—like pigeon racing, and messing about on the river— provide continuity with the past, while newer activities include pastimes such as paragliding. This expresses the old English paradox of wanting the comfort of the familiar, while embracing the excitement and novelty of the future. Roberts' book is not a collection of chocolate-box imaginary English countryside pictures, but an honest account of the way new and old, town and country, sit side by side in today's England. Heberdens Farm, Finchdean, Hampshire, a classic rural scene of a pheasant shoot deep in the countryside, shows a modern train running right across the centre of the picture (albeit partly hidden by bushes), but the shooters are not in the least troubled by it. In Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station, Nottinghamshire, four great white cooling towers are set behind two other giants of the industrial landscape, electricity pylons. The scene is redeemed by the clutch of golfers playing a leisurely round on the links in front of them.
Ladies' Day, Aintree Racecourse, Merseyside is a very carefully constructed image in which the photographer places himself in front of one of the large stands at the racecourse, facing the huge crowd of spectators. As a result, the camera captures not just their Sunday best, but all their expectant, expressive faces—these are people who know how to enjoy themselves, embarking on a day of pleasure and mild excitement. Except for the litter in the foreground and the fact that none of the men is wearing a hat, this resembles pictures taken by the Edwardian photographer Horace Nicholls about a hundred years ago. Derby Day, Epsom Downs Racecourse, Surrey is also strikingly similar to photographs by Nicholls of Derby Day just before the Great War, but Roberts has taken a view of the funfair at the racecourse, rather than the track itself. People are eating and drinking in the open air, and again, this could be the English at play circa 1913, apart from a purple rubbish skip and some portacabins.
Blackgang Chine Viewpoint, Ventnor, Isle of Wight has as its focal point a bright yellow ice cream van, parked by a hill and surrounded by a collection of powerful motorcycles. Random groups of people, some of them presumably motorcycle owners, sit on the grass eating ice creams or talking. This picture is reminiscent of sixties photographs of Rockers, with the important social difference that contemporary riders are not regarded with the same fear and trepidation as the bikers of the past. There is an oblique hint at this less salubrious motorcycling heritage in the name Blackgang, since the bikers of the early sixties tended to ride in gangs and sport black leather jackets. Today, they wear colourful jackets and their cycles are similarly liveried. As always, England has gently softened.
In Blackpool Promenade, Lancashire and Blackpool Beach, Lancashire a crowd including people in traditional Asian attire enjoy the seaside. In one photograph, an Asian woman appears to be photographing a male figure whose jeans are rolled up to his knees. With his hood over his head and his hands in his pockets as he gazes out to sea, he looks for all the world like a Gumby from Monty Python's Flying Circus (except, of course, for the knotted handkerchief). The woman may be trying to take a picture of Blackpool Tower in the background, but that is not how it looks. Such detail in Roberts' images, especially those full of people, makes it possible to pore over them for hours. We English is a book that the reader will wish to place prominently on the coffee table and invite visitors to peruse over a good cup of tea and a hearty slice of cake—though you may find them reluctant to hand it back to you.--Alexander J Betts
A major exhibition of We English will be on display at the National Media Museum, Bradford, from 12 March 5 September 2010. The exhibition is accompanied by a selection of works from the Museum's Collection that extend and illuminate Roberts' inspirations and practice: http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/