“I came across this girl in the Oxford University parks, lying in the summer sun reading a book. It was in the late-60s, not a laptop in sight. It was surprising to find an unshaven armpit, almost as shocking as pubic hair. It’s from The Oxford Pictures, my first photographic essay. It was very much a young man’s vision: anxiety, desire and sexual guilt run right through it, maybe because of my strict upbringing with Sunday school lessons and Christian teaching.”
|‘I looked for moments that reflected my sense of being an outside’ … Sex and the Christian by Paddy Summerfield.|
“It might have been the swinging 60s, with lots of photos in the papers of girls in miniskirts and Mick Jagger in a white dress, but plenty of people felt they were missing out – that this sexual revolution was somewhere else, out of reach. We felt the barriers rather than the freedoms. So I looked for visual moments that reflected my sense of being an outsider: isolated figures beside the river, or sitting on a park bench.
“I wanted a relationship but also feared having one. So it’s not so much sexuality in the pictures as anxiety over something forbidden. Since I was looking to show alienation and loss, I often photographed people from behind, or with body parts “amputated”. I sensed that many of my young subjects shared my feelings.
“Summer was the perfect time for the project: the stronger the sunlight, the darker the shadows and the greater the melancholy. By making figures fragmented and amputated, they become dehumanised, while turned backs and hidden faces suggest a fear of rejection. Often, I don’t show a particular person, but something more general that can stand for us all.
“Many of the pictures refer to darker sides of sexuality, transgression and prohibition. There’s a punt pole photo where the person is reduced to a naked limb stretching out, grasping the erect pole. Beyond it, there’s a circular hole in the trees. Then there’s a girl in shadows, hidden by her hair, with sunlight sculpting her bare arm into a phallic shape. Such symbols recur throughout, typical of the obsessions of a young adult.
“It’s been a good life, working as a photographer. It’s not a proper job. All day photographing, in and out of pubs in the evening, a bit of noise and mischief and exhibitionism. Back then, we were always talking about pictures: what we understood, what we felt others were saying.
“I may have taken my photographs in Oxford but it was not really my subject. They are a personal document, concerned with expressing my inner life rather than recording the world around me. So by photographing students, I found a way to tell a story of pain. We were all young together, all lonely together. Everyone looks for love, everyone. We don’t all find it.”
(Photo by Paddy Summerfield, via The Guardian)