A poignant look at parents' lives

Cover of the book: The parents' hands

Cover of the book: The parents' hands

First published in News by

Anne James analyses a personal and powerful photographic installation

Oxford-based photographer Paddy Summerfield has spent a lifetime making personal photographic documents. He first came to public prominence in 1967 when as a first-year photography student his pictures were published in Album and later in Creative Charge. From both he received encouragement and recognition of his expressive, innovative approach to ‘capturing the decisive moment’, an approach he credits to the strong influence of Cartier Bresson’s approach to his work.

Over the years Summerfield has been a strong influential force in Oxford photography and beyond. His portfolio comprises substantial bodies of work including his French series, a surreal period, landscape portraiture and a quirky documentation of college life in Oxford in the 1970s. Summerfield works exclusively in black and white.

In 1997 he began work on a new series Mother and Father. On family holidays, as his parents’ only living child, he took all the family snaps, initially with his Box Brownie. Over the years he presented his parents with small albums of photographs of themselves as birthday or Christmas presents. Then in 1997 he embarked on a ten-year period of documenting their lives, their relationship with each other and their home environment on a systematic basis. Often he would shoot 12 rolls of film in a day, eventually amassing more than 1,000 negatives.

His parents were married for 60 years and the photo essay Summerfield has created from the large body of negatives tells of the strength of their relationship, their mutual love and dependency on each other and how this played out with his mother’s ultimate and tragic succumbing to Alzheimer’s. Summerfield explains that she was never angry or aggressive, just distressed and confused as increasingly the world and her previously secure home became unfamiliar.

To coincide with the citywide festival Photography Oxford ’14 has published his photo essay Mother and Father as a book. Photographs in the essay are taken in the garden of the family’s North Oxford home, when the protective sweep of the trees and shrubs around the lawn provides a background against which Summerfield tenderly documents his parents as they live out their lives and, as he says, were “holding on to something that was slipping away”.

The image of the cover of the book, illustrated here, is a moving pair of hands, hers passive and directionless, his clearly arthritic, comforting, caring and controlling.

In 019 he can be seen gently coaxing her towards a garden seat, their enjoined hands and extended arms creating a balletic curve that echoes the curve on the edge of the flower bed and the curved back of the garden seat, a destination that is not clear if they will make or not. The whole picture provides a beautiful balletic image that rises above the pain of negotiation and the lack of certainty that both parties are clearly experiencing.

When Alzheimer’s took its toll of his mother, his father survived bereft for a further seven years. Illustrated here is 073, this father captured as ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’, in a part of the garden in which they had shared so much of their lives together.

As part of Photography Oxford ’14, Summerfield has created an installation in the garden of his parents’ and now his home, with the help of Patricia Baker-Cassidy. Each evening during the festival, at 6.30pm, he will be showing images from Mother and Father on a large screen in the garden itself.

The festival provides an opportunity to purchase this highly moving photo essay and to experience the power of the photographs and the story they tell, in situ.

Mother and Father: Paddy Summerfield
337 Banbury Road, Oxford
September 14-October 5

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