The Oxford Pictures – Jack Rayner talks to Paddy Summerfield
"I'm at a better place, I'm having a better party, I'm better looking and here I am and I'm blowing a kiss"
“I was young and uncertain and found a vision to express this. These photographs reflect my inner world, as well as being a document of Oxford student life. I felt like an outsider, and lonely, that there was always something going on, parties and drinking, but elsewhere. I sensed a loneliness in the students I photographed. We were all lonely together.”
Paddy Summerfield documents moods like few other photographers. For the November issue of OX, we spoke to Joanna Vestey about her Custodians series, which placed the supervisors of Oxford’s most beautiful and renowned buildings in the spaces they maintain to create a striking sense of human scale. Paddy’s series The Oxford Pictures, whilst still focused on the city of dreaming spires, is less concerned with spatial or temporal scale and is more interested in the apprehensive, unsure disposition associated with being a young, curious outsider to the famous college buildings. As I talk with Paddy in his home just off the Banbury Road, he describes the feelings that are depicted in this uniquely Oxonian photostory.
“Looking for girls and missing out on the parties: that’s quite a universal set of emotions, particularly at that age. Everyone will be feeling that kind of thing but nobody will be admitting it. All my work is psychological, to an extent, and I was quite unusual because I'm not a social photographer. I make the personal document. A lot of the images [in The Oxford Pictures] are obviously very phallic, it's about sexual anxiety. I often felt as if I couldn't connect with people.”
Much of the sexual anxiety and existential torment that Paddy refers to is expressed in The Oxford Pictures through the avoidance of direct portrayal of the subjects as individuals, leaving an ambiguity to the characters pictured.
“The composition of having people turned away adds to the sense of rejection. It not only reveals what people are looking at, which is much more interesting, but there's also the idea that when people are looking at the camera, you never consider that they're looking at the photographer, do you? You don't see that. It's all about isolation.”
Effectively recording the minutiae of a particular stage of life is something that Paddy does very well indeed. His previous series, Mother and Father, chronicles the final decade of his parent’s marriage as Paddy and his father lose his mother to Alzheimer’s. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more personal and emotionally-charged subject, and I wondered how Paddy drew together such a powerful artistic endeavour.
“I'd always taken pictures of my parents, for holidays and presents, around the house, in the car, out for walks. Snapshots. Amongst that there were some quite good pictures. Catherine Smith, who ran the Book House in Summertown, said "look Paddy - there's a proper essay here". She alerted me to the fact that I should take this as a serious project, so I started developing the idea, but of course I never knew where it would take me. My mother had Alzheimer's and I was sharing my father's care of her, and my father would be working away in the garden and my mother, really, was lost to the world. She would say: “the world doesn't seem as it used to seem”. The end sequence, of the rain and the overgrown garden and the blackbird on the chair... I couldn't anticipate what was going to happen, but I let the garden go and carried on photographing, and it was only when I had all these negatives that I could start developing a story. One of the difficult factors is that I was stuck in one environment: I never showed the house, and I always took photos from the windows, or from the sitting room. I could change lenses, but it was one patch of lawn, and I had to photograph in any kind of light. I couldn't have any direct control: It’s two people on one patch of grass, acting out their lives together.”
A particularly striking aspect of Paddy’s work, whether in the intense emotional profundity of Mother and Father or likewise in the lost foreignness of early adulthood portrayed in The Oxford Pictures, is the timelessness of the images: There are few cultural signifiers in the photos to suggest that they were not taken yesterday, a decade ago, or six decades ago. This is no accident, as Paddy elaborates: “I thought, when I was influenced by earlier work from Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson, who were taking photos in the 30s and 40s, that I wanted my photos to look like theirs, so I chose something that looked as though it was permanent.”
Our conversation, at this point, began to flow onto the comparison between our generations: a young photographer now faces a very different prospect from when Paddy was taking The Oxford Pictures. In particular, the rise of the internet has meant that in the worlds of art and music, it’s difficult not to find yourself surrounded by a sea of mediocrity. He continues:
“When I was at art school, I learnt all my vision from very small, little books. One on Kertesz, one on Cartier-Bresson. Sometimes, I think that it’s a great advantage to not have the ability to see every photo ever created, instantly, like you can with a laptop, because you aren’t going to get misdirected into a flood of pictures which are not necessarily amateurish but are diluted and not very clever.
“Beforehand, when there were very few means to release what you’re creating, the only people that became known were the people that kept honing their craft, whereas nowadays you can just throw anything up on the internet and there’s this sea of art and music that doesn’t really achieve anything.”
The era in which Paddy shot The Oxford Pictures cannot be replicated. In the age of smartphones, Instagram and the idea of the “personal brand”, documenting the leisure and excess of undergraduate life is a near-universal practice, but without any of the nuance and artistry that Paddy coveted so highly in his work. Paddy sums up ‘selfie’ culture beautifully in the imagined thoughts of those who are uploading their narcissistic documents on to the internet:
"I'm at a better place, I'm having a better party, I'm better looking and here I am and I'm blowing a kiss.”
This near-universal sense of projected superiority may be a modern inclination, but the insecurities behind them have existed for generations. Whilst The Oxford Pictures show the vulnerabilities of troubled youth, and are a world away from the contrived confidence of selfie culture, attempts to disguise youthful uncertainty can be seen across the two diametrically opposed forms of image capture. He may not have been able to predict the rise of ubiquitous pictorial narcissism during the late sixties, but what Paddy has done is to document the unspoken self-doubt of the young adult in a way that is very profound indeed.
The Oxford Pictures are due to be published April 2016 by Dewi Lewis Publishing. A selection of the actual dark room prints are also on permanent display in the reception area of the Old Bank Hotel.
Related Articles: Custodians with photographer Joanna Vestey