Paddy Summerfield’s Oxford is synonymous with the University, which he depicts as a hermetically sealed place where codes of dress and behaviour are prescribed within strict limits and expectations. Even when they let their hair down, students are seen to do so only within acceptable parameters and sanctioned locations. The formality of their attire and their observance of ritual, make it difficult to date his subjects precisely within the post-war period. This temporal uncertainty is echoed spatially, as figures are sliced by the frame or consumed by the encroaching darkness of the photographic print. The undergraduates’ black academic garb, preppy leisure and sportswear, and Commemoration Ball apparel perfectly mirror Summerfield’s precise formalist language.
Summerfield began to make photographs around the same time as photojournalists Homer Sykes, Chris Steele-Perkins and the young Martin Parr, and like them was influenced by Tony Ray-Jones’ infectious blending of American modernism with the British documentary tradition. But whilst his contemporaries were committed to a playful critique of class and the chronicling of British folk and working-class cultures, Summerfield showed no interest in the social and political dimensions of his subjects in Oxford. A grave omission one might think, given the University’s role as a training ground for the Establishment and a bastion of privilege and power. Indeed, I too initially needed some convincing that the Dreaming Spires might justifiably be seen in other terms. But if one of the functions of art is to shake us out of our habitual ways of thinking, then this series meets that challenge.
A film that influenced Summerfield during his formative years was Alain Resnais’ L’Année dernière à Marienbad. Set in an opulent baroque palace populated by wealthy guests, the movie centers on questions of memory and desire. I think it would have been as fruitless to demand of Alain Robbe-Grillet, the film’s scriptwriter, that he evaluate the politics of that social group, as to ask Summerfield to do the same for Oxford. It would be to miss the point. As with Marienbad, for Summerfield his characters are stage actors, and the location a stylized backdrop, in front of which intimate psychological dramas from his imaginings are played out. The formal frigidity of the settings and conformity of costumes enhance his main theme, that of loss and separation.
How does he achieve this flipping of the lens from the exterior to interior worlds? I think it is by a disciplined application of certain rhetorical devices, a way of seeing that amounts to a distinctive language of estrangement. The recurrence of isolated figures set against deep shadow; bodies fractured by surgical cropping; closed doors, gender ambiguity; drunkenness; transgressive observations; phallic objects; misaligned gazes; things broken; anonymous back views and obscured faces, all help articulate the sense of distance, anxiety and alienation found in these photographs.
Summerfield was the same age as his subjects, and now says of that time, ‘ I felt like an outsider, and lonely, that there was always something going on, parties and drinking, but elsewhere. Often I sensed a loneliness in the students’. This last statement reveals a psychological truth that cuts across political and class boundaries, that unhappiness, depression and anxiety are conditions that afflict all social strata, regardless.
Summerfield recently also published ‘Mother and Father’, a series made in his mature years. In it he further develops this language of loss and separation, through an account of his parents during the final decade of their lives. It is a deeply moving work. The two books together chart the development of a remarkable and singular voice in British photography. I have a feeling that there are yet more gems to come from his archive.
– Reviewed by John Goto
The Oxford Pictures 1968-1978 by Paddy Summerfield was published by Dewi Lewis.