Oxford brings together newly-commissioned work produced between 2014 and 2016 by Martin Parr, one of the world’s most iconic photographers and president of the prestigious Magnum agency.
For more than 40 years, Parr has largely turned his lens to aspects of British culture. Whether early black and white documentary work examining typically English traditions through to acute observations of the impact of consumerism on our daily lives, Parr’s photographs demonstrate tremendous perception and affection for his subjects. By focussing on the mundane, Parr is renown for his unique brand of satire, wit and colour photography. Parr’s imagery has also courted controversy, achieved unprecedented levels of popular appeal and undoubtedly helped to advance notions of what constitutes documentary photographic practice today. Crucially, his work has contributed to our direct understanding of broader issues relating to class, identity, politics, work and leisure, both nationally and in a global context.
Now, as part of a wider project about the British establishment, the acclaimed Magnum photographer has documented and dissected a ‘hidden Oxford’ with his characteristically witty and unflinching eye. Commissioned by The Bodleian Libraries and University Oxford Press, Parr’s photographs show the quirks of university life as he finds it, precisely capturing things as they are, albeit with certain degrees of control and construction. A deeper, more critical understanding of photography’s restrictions and possibilities reveals the essential process of representation in constructing meaning from reality.
For the viewer and for many outside these elite establishments, Parr’s photographs reveal aspects that we are rarely able to see, let alone recorded visually: behind-the-scenes student antics and rituals, ceremonies, and age-old traditions that still hold significance today, as well as more routine activity such as sporting events, clubs, societies and tutorials are all brought to bear in Parr’s study of this particular community. These include images of ‘trashing’, where Oxford University students celebrating finishing their exams, resulting in a frenzy of colour and carnivalesque celebration; or ‘Chancellors Court’, the annual meeting of the Chancellor’s Court of Benefactors. Only individuals or organisations who donate more than £1.5 million are eligible to become members and admitted in a special ceremony.
Parr casts a wry eye over these events and countless others, illuminating an everyday and extraordinary world of wealth and privilege without resorting to political statement or critique. Ultimately, Martin Parr: Oxford resolves into a photographic portrait of a time and a place, generating a fixed moment in the depiction of Oxford University’s rich history and cultural heritage.
Curated by Tim Clark and Greg Hobson. The exhibition will be accompanied by a publication from Oxford University Press, Martin Parr: Oxford.