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Culture

A Picture Tells a Thousand Words

Twenty Oxford venues host the city’s inaugural festival of photography, 14 September-5 October


Find a classical angel reading Spot the Dog to her cherub!

Oxford is a wordy city, home to the Oxford English Dictionary which contains 600,000 words – both past and present – and is regarded worldwide as the accepted authority on the English language. However, a picture tells a thousand words and so it is with great excitement that twenty Oxford venues host the city’s inaugural festival of photography this month as exhibitions by internationally-renowned photographers of all genres stimulate debate and discussion about the issues surrounding photography, an ever growing part of everyday life in the 21st century, and raise awareness and appreciation of the photographic arts to the level enjoyed by painting, sculpture and the other visual arts.


 

If you’re an enthusiast of traditional paintings, then perhaps begin your exploration in Jericho (Art Jericho, 6 King Street OX2 6DF) where you’ll find a series of photographs with a painterly quality inspired by the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, the quiet reflection of the women in domestic settings at odds with the digital process used to capture them, and the pace of modern day life. Scenes with the exquisite detail and declicay of Dutch Old masters might contain Jimmy Choos, or find a classical angel reading Spot the Dog to her cherub!

Over in The Jam Factory (Hollybush Row, 27 Park End Street OX1 1HU), you’ll find equally charming delicacy and simplicity in the striking photos of  American, Mark Laita, who has been taking photos of  snakes for more than a decade and few species have eluded his lens. There have been pastel pythons, vibrant vipers, a blue Malaysian coral snake, an albino Honduran milk snake, and a deadly black mamba that bit him in the leg. He survived because the bite was dry and without venom.  Laita suggests that his pictures of snakes get their strength from the tension that exists between beauty and danger, with the symbolism connected with snakes adding an additional layer of sensuality.

Yann Layma in contrast is attracted to creatures that fly rather than slither. He was born in the Touraine region of northwest France, home to Balzac, Descartes, and a lot of butterflies. A chance meeting turned the young Layma into the disciple of a leading entomologist who taught him all there was to know about these beautiful, delicate creatures. An established photographer, Layma looked closer at butterflies experimenting with micro and macro photography. By enlarging very small areas of wings he was able to produce abstract images much closer in style to the work of abstract painters than to work normally associated with nature’s leading photographers.

Oxford photographer Rory Carnegie has also concentrated on animals working with local dog owners and walkers on Port Meadow and his series of photographs of ‘Port Meadow Dogs' won gold for the Best Portrait Series at the Association of Photographers Awards last year. Photographing the landscape throughout the seasons, the images are then composed in layers, creating an ethereal, haunting picture that is almost painterly in quality, reminiscent of the style of Landseer or Stubbs.

These will be on show in Summertown’s Sarah Wiseman Gallery (40-41 South Parade OX2 7JL) alongside a series of contemporary work by Rachael Edgar, created using a very early photographic process, and a series by David Rhys Jones who, while out walking in urban areas in UK towns, is drawn to the eccentricities: old shop signage, gargoyles or even graffiti; the layers and layers of history laid down by generations of inhabitants, moving through the streets and buildings. For the Photography Oxford Festival, he responds to the famous 'Sheldonian Heads' in central Oxford, his photographs are transferred onto ceramic or metal wall-mounted pieces creating an interplay between image and surface, and may be presented alone or arranged in groups for 'constellation viewing'.

In the O3 Gallery in the Oxford Castle Quarter, two German photographers also present their own takes on the urban terrain, the hyper-saturated colours and striking visual geometry of Matthias Heiderich’s architectural photographs in stark contrast with the Dietmar Eckell’s work that show forlorn aircraft and abandoned monuments, the residue of human occupation on the landscape.

You’ll also find a decaying Zimbabwe in Magdalen College; Egypt’s troubled journey from the Mubarak era to the present day from the camera of Laura el-Tantawy; a reflection on the role of photography in medicine and healing at the North Wall Arts Centre and more.

And if you wonder whether these images can all be true representations of moment of social history, politics and biology, as Oxford Brookes University hosts an exhibition of the winning entries to the world’s leading competition for press photographers, Wadham College presents ‘Designed to Deceive’, an exhibition exploring the manipulation of photography before and after the advent of Photoshop!

And last but not least, consider how photography informs your daily lives and influences the way you see the world on a very local level: as we head into September and the summer holidays become just a distant memory captured in a series of snapshots uploaded to your Facebook page within hours of landing back in the UK, you might be interested in ‘ Souvenirs’ , an exhibition curated by Oxford’s JP Reid, that looks at how the taking of photographs on holiday has become more important than experiencing the holiday itself  (at OVADA, 14A Osney Lane, Oxford OX1 1NJ).

Photography Oxford runs from 14 September to 5 October.
For more information on the exhibitions, talks, debates, films and workshops visit the website

- Esther Lafferty, Festival Director of Oxfordshire Artweeks