photographing the long-haired, lovestruck students of 70s oxford
Paddy Summerfield’s new book, The Oxford Pictures 1968-1978, captures the bittersweet aftermath of student debauchery, complete with new-dawn kisses, trailing feather boas, and the loneliness of growing up.
Oxford is magical at the best of times. Those times being summer, namely. But the late-60s and early-70s Oxford that backdrops Paddy Summerfield's images of languorous end-of-term university students is especially romantic. While Summerfield purposefully left obvious timestamps (phone booths, cars) out of frame, his subjects' abundance of hair, and their bell-bottoms and billowy Ossie Clark-style dresses, are lovely giveaways of the era.
Summerfield didn't set out to photograph Oxford's students as a documentary project, though. The Oxford Pictures 1968 - 1978, his new book of the collected images, began as a very personal exploration of feeling disconnected.
While Summerfield grew up in Oxford, and still lives there, he didn't study at the university. In 1968, he was 20 years old and had just graduated from the photography course at Guildford School of Art. "I think you could tell there was some sorrow within me, which I wanted to express," he says. "I felt I could make a personal story around student life down the road. In the city, the pubs and the cafes were full of smoke and chatter, but I chose to photograph the sad and thoughtful students lying on college lawns and drifting across the parks to the riverside."
He gravitated towards the students on the edges — entwined after sunrise by a marquee, the last ones standing after a May Ball — or floating in states of inbetweenness: transfixed in a book alone on a lawn, or dressed in drag for a performance, not quite themselves. While the settings are idyllic, the images are overshadowed by uncertainty.
"I wanted to photograph the present with the eye of the past," says Summerfield, who as a recent graduate admired the work of iconic photographers like Jacques Henri Lartigue and Henri Cartier-Bresson. "I wanted my pictures to look as though it was their world I was passing through, though I knew I was seeing it differently."
Today, he says, Oxford has changed. "Undergraduates no longer wear gowns to lectures, so they become invisible. It's a different world now — the streets are full of tourists taking selfies." But, he adds, "maybe I just have a romantic idea of the past."
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Paddy Summerfield