Paddy Summerfield is a lifelong exponent of Expressionist Photography. Expressionist artists seek to visualise meaningful emotional experience by recasting both physical and social realities within their own highly subjective framework. Some of the ways in which Summerfield achieves this shift from outer to inner worlds I cover in a review of his early Oxford Photographs. To these rhetorical devices he adds in this later work accentuated grain, direct flash, blurring, juxtapositions, sequencing, and on occasions a seeming disregard for composition.
Whatever the means, the aim is to shift consideration of the image away from social or political interpretations, locating meaning instead within the personal history, memories and sensibilities of the photographer. Given this intent, a little background information about the photographer, whom I have known for almost forty years, seems appropriate.
Summerfield was born into comfortable family circumstances in affluent North Oxford. Some years after the sudden death of his sister, Felicity, Paddy was sent to boarding school as a nine-year old. The feelings of separation and loss, which recur in his work, must partly be attributed to these traumatic early experiences. And more were to follow.
By his early twenties, after an uneasy period studying photography at Guildford School of Art, where he was told to ‘put away his ideas’ if he wanted to continue with the course, he returned to Oxford.
Summerfield lived for many years on the other side of the tracks, in East Oxford’s bedsitter land. By day he wandered the streets, ‘grazing’ as he called it, with his Pentax in a carrier bag, stopping in pubs to play the fruit machines, and in cheap cafes where he would sit writing pop lyrics and talking to the other customers, often troubled people, each with their own tale.
Evenings were sometimes spent in out-of-town nightclubs, venues that utterly lacked glamour, catering exclusively for older clubbers. Unsurprisingly these are the places and people he photographed, but never as a social document, rather as an act of identification with their unhappiness and misfortune.
The scene occasionally shifts to the beach, mostly at Blackpool. The shoreline offers a setting whereby isolated figures, absorbed in their holiday pursuits, appear both absurd and heroically human when set against the vastness of sea and sky.
Summerfield’s expressionism is not the superficial narcissism of selfies and Facebook culture, but a sustained enquiry and search for understanding and meaning in a sometimes-bleak interior landscape. Samuel Beckett was a formative influence on him, as were the many damaged individuals in pop culture with whom he felt empathy, most especially John Lennon. Unlike certain YBAs, who have made their careers on the back of dubious ‘confessions’, there is no calculation in Paddy’s self-revelations. The work is as raw and authentic as the man himself.
You might be wondering why, until recently, Summerfield’s work has been so little known and so underappreciated. One of the paradoxes of being an artist is that you have to be thin-skinned to make sensitive work, but thick-skinned to negotiate the art world. Add to this the requisite social and organisational skills of being a ‘professional’ artist and you have at one extreme, for the brash, a hustlers’ charter; and at the other, for the highly sensitive, an insurmountable obstacle. Some very good artists are just not able to negotiate a career.
Due to Paddy’s resolve in these his later years, to bring order and visibility to his life’s work, and with the help and support of Patricia Baker-Cassidy, who contributes the thoughtful afterword to the book, this is Summerfield’s third book in as many years.
Though not for the faint hearted, the great success of Empty Days is in drawing the viewer fully into Paddy’s world… and as in life, it is both rewarding and on occasions disturbing.
– Reviewed by John Goto
From Empty Days © Paddy Summerfield :