Bring back some good or bad memories


October 30, 2017

The Story Behind the Photograph of a Girl Reading a Christian Book in the Swinging 60s

A girl under summer skies, reading in the University Parks, one of the series published as The Oxford Pictures 1968-1978 (Dewi Lewis Publishing 2016). The photo was taken by Paddy Summerfield in the late 1960s, as he shared the story behind the image:

“I looked for moments that reflected my sense of being an outside” … Sex and the Christian by Paddy Summerfield.

“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.”

“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)


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