Critic Gerry Badger’s 1976 essay on Paddy Summerfield, who captured 1970s Oxford life.
At Oxford between 1968 and 1978, photographer Paddy Summerfield captured students at leisure
By Gerry Badger
Summerfield is one of the most talented of the young British photographers who sprung up in the seventies. Indeed, his pictures exemplify the new attitudes formed by the late sixties, for they are one of the first and best examples of a definite shift from the classical photo-journalistic ethos towards a more personal, inward kind of vision.
This shift was effected by the increased awareness of and interest in the medium generated in the United States over the past two decades and propagated here by the photographic press. It was the introduction of basic work by the basic modern masters through the magazines – and through the trickle of imported books which has now become a flood – that gave young photographers much broader influences than Bill Brandt or Cartier-Bresson, turning them to Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Minor White, Paul Strand et al. A new outlook gradually became evident. The whole intellectual basis of the medium came under close scrutiny: photography's status was re-examined, and photographers became much more aware of using the camera as a major means of personal expression - a means of perhaps quite private expression, thus less dependent upon the media of mass communication for its outlet. This of course has led to the growth in photographic galleries, the marketing of photographs as works of art, and the establishment of funding institutions such as the Arts Council to sponsor this essentially non-commercial photography.
So, as a product of this shift in thinking, it is immediately apparent that Paddy Summerfield's vision of Oxford is inherently more complex than that of the traditional documentary photographer. It falls, one may say, into the category of what has come to be known as the “personal document”, which means that it is a vision defying any neat categorisation. And this for me is one of the factors which affirms Summerfield's talent: his is a personal voice, and he is one of the few young British photographers – one of the few young photographers anywhere – who has found a coherent, cogent and mature vision.
And it is a voice which is not based upon the virtue of stylistic consistency – the safe following of well worn and clichéd furrows. Summerfield's images slip and slide anywhere from the direct recording of external fact to the total manipulation of form and space – but always they are Paddy Summerfield. Of course, any photographer can only be or show what he is, but paradoxically very few actually communicate what they are with any conviction, for usually they are trying to be someone else – another Cartier-Bresson, another Brandt, another Evans – and this effectively masks personal vision, to one degree or another. Mysteriously, magically, Paddy Summerfield seems to be unable to be anything other than himself: everything that he does is imbued with his personality, with his unique, even peculiar way of seeing.
His images are both an exploration of his home-town and an exploration of his own psyche, and also - a very important factor if perhaps not so acceptable to the traditional documentary outlook - an exploration of the formal possibilities of the medium. So the pictures, on the surface perhaps rather straightforward and simplistic, are in effect quite complex and subtle in their inherent formal and contextual relationships. What is clear is that they add up to something rare amongst photographers - a vision.
Paddy Summerfield has given us a vision of Oxford in this exhibition. It is a vision which we can all readily share, but it is truly a vision in that Summerfield's view of Oxford is not particularly close to the traditional or popular conception of the city and its premier institution, although of course being rooted in the basic verisimilistic precepts of the medium it does include much that seems familiar.
Summerfield's Oxford approaches the conventional most closely in the area of romantic nostalgia: his pictures are obviously redolent of the nostalgia which inevitably touches such an established an venerated institution. So the images centre upon traditional aspects of town and university life- dappled sunlight upon ancient weathered stones; nubile girls in long dresses wandering gracefully amongst overhanging willows; slender youths in blazers and straw hats - every well-worn cliché in fact, that one could think of with regard to Oxford. Yet while recognising these clichés - and they are, as all clichés, true to a certain extent - Paddy Summerfield digs through the crust of sentimentality inherent in such nostalgia and finds a bitter-sweet, often bitingly humorous core.
This he achieves by a masterly utilisation of the photographer's elemental means – time and space. The temporal and spatial qualities of his images are peculiar to himself, and invest what are apparently straightforward documents with a rich symbolism relating to both the public and private faces of the city.
In particular, Summerfield brilliantly and consistently exploits the edges of the frame to create the underlying but unmistakeable tensions in his scenes of the Arcadian swards of learning. He uses the edges of the frames indeed, as well as anyone. His methods may be compared superficially to those of Ralph Gibson, and there is undoubtedly a Gibsonesque aura in Paddy's seeing from time to time, although it must be stressed that Summerfield was making such pictures before Gibson's reputation was big enough or his work known enough to cross the Atlantic to any great degree. Both the intentions and the effects of the two photographers' work are quite different, although in each case the truncation effected by the frame edges serves as a temporal and as a symbolic device. In the temporal sense, the cutting-off of subject elements extends the image beyond the frame, expanding the moment of taking, so each picture becomes almost a little tableau; and in the symbolic sense the jagged, tense rhythm created reflect something of the photographer's inner moods and feelings.
In Summerfield, this expansion of time and event is perhaps best exemplified in a superb, classic shot of several tennis courts. Here, the photographer has not only reflected perfectly the typical Oxford, typical English setting, complete with Arcadian back-drop, but has gone so far as to have caught each player in a complex scene during a different instant in his stroke. The effect is splendid: it is like a series of overlapping Muybridges, yet the overall mood of the picture is not one of movement. It possesses a strange, Marienbad-like stiffness which lends a haunting, surreal atmosphere to a very ordinary and commonplace scene, thus immediately raising it from the realm of the particular to the universal.
The surreal is a very important characteristic of Summerfield's vision. The particular disposition of figures within the frame that he tends to employ results often in the release of large areas of empty, usually dark space in his images, inevitably reminding one of Brandt, or perhaps more pertinently of Chirico. The shadowy cloisters and spaces of Summerfield's Oxford become as haunting and mysterious as the somnambulant piazzas of the metaphysical painter.
But unlike so many photographers, Paddy Summerfield is not merely playing those clever little surrealistic gags and games to which the photographic medium unfortunately lends itself all too easily. His manipulation of space and time, although at times producing great visual delight and no little humour, has a much more serious purpose.
The Oxford ideal would seem to epitomise man's search for a spiritual side to his existence, yet the vacuous, somewhat threatening spaces of Summerfield's images would emphatically refute this, and point to an alienation and soullessness existing at the core of modern civilisation. For he recognises that despite its outward veneer of civilisation and culture, Oxford is a genteel jungle, since the search for knowledge is also a search for status, power and material reward - so the university is a pressure-cooker at the highest and most demanding level, producing its share of alienation, loneliness and quiet desperation implied in many of his pictures.
Summerfield's figures are usually pictured alone, seemingly imprisoned in their thoughts, although a few glimpses are seen of fairly desultory sexual relationships, as in the anonymous couple kissing behind the tauntingly raised boater, or the masked girl lying under a chestnut tree, seemingly promising only a brief physical encounter than a stable alliance. In many cases analogous to the work of Manuel Bravo, anonymity suggests stunted personal relationships; faces are hidden - by hats or boaters, by arms, by shadows, or by overhanging trees; but this denial of personality seems more intimately felt in Summerfield rather than in Bravo, where it symbolises more of a broad cultural manifestation rather than personal feeling.
Ultimately, Paddy Summerfield's view of Oxford is an extremely personal one. It is a properly nostalgic vision, but one that is suitably devoid of any sentimentality, and to many it may seem bleak and unduly pessimistic. But it is a wholly honest vision, springing deeply from within and manifesting itself intuitively and superbly during that five-hundredth of a second in which he captures these slices of Oxford life.
The Oxford Pictures 1968-78 by Paddy Summerfield is available through Dewi Lewis Publishing.
Gerry Badger is a leading UK photography writer and curator. His indispensable The Photobook: A History (3 volumes, co-author Martin Parr) consolidated his critical influence. In 2011 The Pleasures of Good Photographs won the Infinity Award. Badger's distinguished essays, as well as his own photographic practice, have achieved wide acclaim. The essay reproduced here with the author’s permission was originally published in the British Journal of Photography in 1976.