Book Review The Oxford Pictures By Paddy Summerfield Reviewed by Christopher J Johnson Some places are timeless; the power they hold and the history that has passed through them is evident in their human structures, their traditions and, though flora and time may wear them, it only adds to the sense of their greatness.
Reviewed by Christopher J Johnson
The Oxford Pictures.
Photographs by Paddy Summerfield. Text by Gerry Badger and Patricia Baker Cassidy.
Dewi Lewis Publishing, Stockport, England, 2016. 96 pp., 57 duotone illustrations, 8¾x9¾".
Some places are timeless; the power they hold and the history that has passed through them is evident in their human structures, their traditions and, though flora and time may wear them, it only adds to the sense of their greatness. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu make great examples of the style of place I am speaking of, but many many more places, which might not come immediately to mind, have this quality too.
Oxford is such a place. Established sometime around 900 AD, the University of Oxford became central to English higher education by the 12th century. Now made up of 38 constitute colleges, the city and its university has profound historical depth and importance.
Problematic of such ancient locations as Oxford is the youthful. For no matter how old a city might be, the young who populate it, who take up the ages-old homes and storefronts (and modernize their interiors) and who attend the storied universities of such places, continuously renew their importance and add an ongoing depth to their history.
But being young in a place where history holds a central importance has never been easy; the young don’t take to tradition without grudge, in fact endemic to youth is a tendency to reject tradition and attempt to forge something new to replace and denounce accepted sociological norms (an ironic cycle, as every new generation exhibits this behavior); in Oxford this might be hard to notice, as a new shipment of the youthful arrives each fall and has done so for centuries. The juxtaposition, though, can create a sense of isolation; of loneliness even amidst one’s peers and it is this loneliness that Summerfield has attempted to capture.
The Oxford Pictures, by Paddy Summerfield, takes on the role of persona versus habitat and addresses this problematic cycle. In 1968 Summerfield as an undergraduate began the series, at the time he was twenty years old and on summer holiday. Summerfield turned his camera on those who shared in his fate with special attention given to women, couples and leisure; subjects that occupy a large arena of the youthful mind. It was a time of immense loneliness in his life and, endemic to loneliness, introspection. These preoccupations led him to explore, in-depth, youth and notions of isolation in a place of age which seems, whether or not intentional, to heighten the loneliness and separateness expressed in The Oxford Pictures.
What is startling about the pictures is their use of location, dress and space; through these three filters the subject of his work takes a sharper focus. Youth becomes apparent, not through activity or the people themselves, but rather by the juxtaposition of them with the centuries old architecture and, often, traditional attire and activities of Oxford.
Despite the street photography/portrait-like nature of the images, The Oxford Pictures is a work that looks inwardly at the mind of the young; the youthful mind which thinks too much and obsessively about one’s image, one’s connection to others, one’s longing to be a part of a whole, but to remain unique as well (a part of the whole, though usually through the intimacy of “couplehood”). All of this comes out in the work with astonishing clarity. Ennui, that dreary French term, is at work in these pictures, where dissatisfaction and restlessness obscure the reality of those photographed.
Not a lot of works push their desired theme as deeply and as well as The Oxford Pictures, particularily when we take into account that Summerfield was quite young when he started the series; despite this he shows an expert handling of concept and final product. Paddy Summerfield has supplied us with an original work that yet retains a classical appeal. These are just great photos. —CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON
CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico where is manager of photo-eye Bookstore. Aside from this he is a writer for the Meow Wolf art collective and book critic for The CFile Foundation. His first book of poetry, &luckier, will be released by the University of Colorado in November 2016.
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