The words ‘Oxford University’ immediately introduce a slideshow of images in the mind. The dreaming spires, the gowns, the punting, the Harry Potter-esque interiors of the colleges: most of the UK, if not the wider world, has a fair grip on these iconic scenes, which speak of a mix of both learning and privilege.
Magnum photographer Martin Parr spent two years travelling back and forth to Oxford, documenting tutorials, dinners, garden parties, and the many formal events that are unique to the university. The resulting images have been turned into a book divided into three large chapters, reflecting the three teaching terms of the university year. It forms part of a series of works by Parr that aims to examine the British ‘establishment’, with other elements documenting public schools, the City of London and the Army.
People tend to have an unconscious opinion of Oxford. It might be one of awe, at the great intellect to be found there or at its hallowed architecture, or conversely one of irritation, of its exclusive, clubby nature, its privilege (an education at Oxford or Cambridge is often viewed as an automatic passport to later success or power) or its poshness.
Most people likely don’t think about it very much, but if you grew up near the city, as I did, it is almost impossible not to take up a position on the place. The expression ‘town and gown’ will be familiar to anyone living in the shadow of a dominant seat of learning, and, for me growing up, I came down easily on the side of ‘town’, finding the university’s rituals strange and elitist, despite having close family and friends attached to it.
All clubs fascinate though, and it’s easy to see the appeal of the establishment as a subject for Parr. For my own part, as an adult I’ve always leapt at the opportunities I’ve had to snoop around the university, and when sent a copy of the book, I opened it with eagerness to see how much it captured the complexity of the institution.
Parr is often accused of mocking his subject matter, but while containing the occasional quirk, this is a largely straight documentation of a subject that already happily embraces moments of absurdity with great seriousness. (An example of this, that I’d never heard of, is given in an essay by Simon Winchester included in the book, where he talks of the bell at Christ Church college ringing at 9.05pm instead of 9pm, reflecting ‘Oxford time’ instead of Greenwich Mean Time.)
Parr’s style is to go in close on his subject, so the dreaming spires that might dominate more touristy books on Oxford are given barely a walk-on part here. But the university’s other traditions are in full evidence. A number of ritualistic performances such as the ‘Admission of the Proctors’ (who are responsible for ‘academic discipline’ at the colleges), the Head of the River rowing competition, the May Day celebrations and the many, many college dinners and feasts are amply captured, alongside the distinctive outfits and language of the university.
There is a sense that this has all remained largely unchanged over the decades, if not centuries. At times this feels stifling: the faces documented in the book’s pages are overwhelmingly white, for example, particularly amongst those with the obvious power. Hints of modernity creep in, however: there are several photos documenting a Queerfest event and Parr’s photos of the Ruskin School of Art offer at least a different kind of college uniform (one that still conforms to stereotype, though is arty rather than academic).
Other images feel like they could have been taken at almost any elite university. Parr has attempted to capture academia at work but this is not easy to make interesting and the shots of students in the library or scientists at work end up being bland. They are essential to include nonetheless: this is, after all, the real lifeblood of the university.
Despite being titled simply ‘Oxford’, Parr’s book is firmly a portrait of the colleges, not the city, and it is slightly disappointing that he didn’t capture more of the places where the two intersect (the city’s pubs, say).
But this is likely intentional: for Parr’s work is really a portrait of the bubble of Oxford University, with all the positives and negatives this brings.
Oxford by Martin Parr is published by OUP on September 7, global.oup.com; A display of photographs from the series will be on show at the Weston Library in Oxford from September 8-October 22, as part of Photo Oxford, September 8-24, photooxford.org