Michaela Crawley takes us through a unique show by Mariana Cook

Scientists, academics, writers and politicians – all come under the spotlight of American photographer, Mariana Cook in her latest series of portraits at Wolfson College.

Featuring 15 world-famous figures with links to the college, the series includes the first and current presidents of Wolfson College, Isaiah Berlin and Hermione Lee. Cook sympathetically captures elements of her subjects’ character in this latest collection of portraits, through subtle gestures and knowing looks.

Other sitters include world-famous scientists Marcus du Sautoy and Raymond Pierrehumbert, the philosopher Antony Appiah, pianist Alfred Brendel, classicist Mary Beard, historian Roy Foster, lawyer and Mansfield College head Helena Kennedy former Ireland president Mary Robinson and Oxford professor of poetry Simon Armitage.

All have links to Wolfson as past Berlin, Haldane and Syme Lecturers, as honorary fellows of the college or because they have given major speeches at Wolfson.

The exhibition also includes portraits of Wolfson College architect and honorary fellow Alan Berman, the novelist Michèle Roberts and the literary writer and academic Alexandra Harris, both of whom have lectured at Wolfson and are supporters of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing.

It also features a portrait of Professor John Barnard – an honorary fellow of Wolfson College and husband of its president, Dame Hermione Lee – which will be first seen in this exhibition before taking its place with the other portraits of the college presidents’ spouses.

Mariana Cook is a fine art photographer specialising in black and white photography and gelatin silver prints, and is the is the last surviving protégée of pioneering American photographer Ansel Adams.

Her works are held in international collections including MOMA, New York; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the Bibliothèque Nationale and Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris. She is known for her character studies of persons both in and out of the public eye, and is perhaps best known for her portrait of A Couple in Chicago which shows a young Barack and Michelle Obama, taken in 1996 at their Hyde Park apartment, for her series, Couples: Speaking from the Heart and published alongside an interview with Obama in The New Yorker magazine.

Ten books of Cook’s work have been published, including the best-selling Fathers and Daughters (1994), and Stone Walls: Personal Boundaries was her first book of landscapes, which was released in 2011 to much acclaim.

Dame Hermione said: ‘Mariana Cook’s portraits are famous for catching the essential identity of her subjects and this series has a special meaning for the college. This is a unique exhibition and a world premiere by a renowned photographer and it is a great privilege to be able show Mariana’s new work at Wolfson during my final year as president.”Hermione Lee has been President of Wolfson since 2008. She is an award-winning biographer and critic and Professor of Literature at the University of Oxford. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and is on the Council of the Royal Society of Literature. She was made a CBE in 2003 and a Dame in 2013 for services to literary scholarship.

* The exhibition, composed of 15 portraits, will be on view at Wolfson College through 31 December, 2017.