Seeing women in Oxford’s photography scene

Photographs by Robert Taylor hanging alongside paintings in the Dining Hall of Trinity College, Oxford

Sometimes conversations with photography coalesce in a place: an exhibition here, a commission there, a publication to seal the moment. For me, this has recently happened in Oxford. Earlier this year, I was invited to speak at the seminar series for the Bible in Art, Music, and Literature hosted by Trinity College; and last month I visited some of the venues taking part in the Photo Oxford Festival. At the former, I came across the work of photographer Robert Taylor, whose series Feminae Trinitatis was displayed in the Dining Hall at Trinity. This work, and the theme of Photo Oxford this year, centred on women: women as sitters, as photographers, as curators, and as leaders in their field. I’ll try and distill what I think coalesced here, something that goes beyond a passing thematic interest, and puts feminism on the map with its sense of place.

In the online conference for the Festival (24th October), ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Women’, a discussion between Fiona Rogers (Firecracker) and Anna Fox (Fast Forward) gave a sharp snapshot of the under-representation of women in particularly contemporary terms. In BBC4’s recent ‘Britain in Focus’ series, only 8 women were mentioned over 4 programmes, none of whom were living; of the 24 photographers at Tate Modern’s first major photography exhibition Cruel and Tender (2003), 3 were women; in the publication Photography Masterclass: Creative Techniques of 100 Great Photographers (Thames & Hudson, 2016), 8 were from women. It is certainly true that historically women have had less opportunity to achieve professional specialisation, in this as in so many other fields. But the speakers were keen to point out that perpetuation of under-representation continues at the hands of today’s gate-keepers – or at least, at the behest of those more established cultural positions for comment: the BBC, the Tate, the art publishing house. By contrast, the organisations Firecracker and Fast Forward have successfully championed various alternative platforms for women, whether a series of international conferences, a manifesto for change, or widely respected competition and award schemes.

And of course, the Festival itself afforded this opportunity for a raised platform, as ‘Women & Photography: Ways of Seeing and Being Seen’. Photo Oxford is now on its third festival for photography, a multi-site, multi-event celebration held once every three years. Earlier this month, I visited four of the exhibitions: Joanna Vestey’s ‘Circles’ collection and Mariana Castillo Deball’s ‘Between Making and Knowing Something’ were both indoors, while Fran Monks’ ‘Strength and Resilience’ portraits and a few Anna Atkins photograms were to be found outside on street-side boards. Despite the limitations of a pandemic, and in clear contrast to the wholesale move to ‘online editions’ of similarly timed events (most notably Photo London and the Brighton Photo Biennial), Photo Oxford stood by its physical programme. For ‘women and photography’, this seems an importantly tangible demonstration of its commitment to ‘being seen’, across a spectrum of display spaces: from the churchyard of St Giles’ Church (home to The Gatehouse charity for the homeless in Oxford, where Monks’ portraits were taken and displayed) and the wall of the Covered Market, to Modern Art Oxford and the Pitt Rivers Museum. The spectacle of photography in these spaces at some level achieves its sought-for democratisation.

For me, this was epitomised by Taylor’s work in Trinity’s Dining Hall. Oxford is a place with unavoidable connotations of privilege, intellectual and financial, of which the stately Colleges and their grounds are an enduring, material symbol. For years, the educational system here excluded women as students. In 2017, Taylor was commissioned to take portraits of women across all sections of the College, nominally to celebrate ‘diversity and inclusivity’, and materially resulting in a dramatically displaced narrative of commendation. For the original display in the Hall, the oil paintings of various male founders and benefactors were removed to the balcony, while the female alumnae and staff took the main walls. Later in 2019, the current display had re-engaged the men, with an arrangement designed to be conversational and corrective in tone: women assume places they have previously not been permitted to, at the High Table, or above the older portraits (above left: Roma Tearne, a recent Fine Art graduate is displayed above Bernard Adams, Bishop of Limerick by an unknown seventeenth-century artist). I particularly like the group portrait (above right, shown at the High Table end of the Hall), which features women who serve and have traditionally served other more humble positions in the College, not least the kitchen staff. The Foundress of Trinity College, Lady Elizabeth Pope (c.1515-1593) is seen in the painting behind them, and so in representational and physical space the orchestration of hierarchical exclusion collapses.

The nub here is the and. Feminist viewpoints in our representational spaces is all well and good: the media world is changing, contributors are seeing gaps in the exhibition line-ups and the published/broadcast surveys, and are pointing them out. But I want to see them in and across physical spaces too, where perhaps the idea of politicised viewpoint as a matter of geography hasn’t been fully considered. From the small details of where an image sits on what kind of wall, to the bigger associations of place with different kinds of authority or voice or historical traffic. Maybe we could call this photography’s Oxford scene, instead of Oxford’s photography scene. Maybe the local can be sutured more reflexively to the discourse.

In memory of Dr Tom Gledhill, my Dad

My father’s Bible

My father died on the 16th April. He had Parkinson’s, and was in a care home in Oxfordshire where, despite isolation, COVID-19 took away his breath. Parkinson’s took away other things, shading my last year with him in other ways: his frustration, his failing speech, his intent on leaving the wheelchair behind (but definitely not the walnut cake). On his last night, the carers read Psalm 23 to him, a man whose love of the Bible knew it inside out. Of all the things I want to remember about my Dad, this is up there along with his favourite jokes and repeated stories of his life’s adventures. He found the Bible to be so abundant, so profusely full of life, it spilled over into my life. And keeps spilling over. The Bible, and this photograph of my Dad’s Bible, is fundamentally generative for me, an evocation of him that escapes the bounds of ‘memory’ and becomes a picture of life to the full.

Which it was. Dad taught in Nigeria, Turkey, Uganda, Malawi, Kenya, and Wales. The first three on that list were all before he was 40 years old, and include what he called his ‘baptism of fire’ introduction to Africa: teaching during the Biafran War at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, and under Idi Amin’s regime whilst at Makere University in Kampala, Uganda. He was teaching physics in his specialist area of nuclear magnetic resonance (having been first to Oxford, then the University of Nottingham for his PhD), in countries without computers, and usually without running water, but with plenty of guns. Happily for him they also had motorbikes. And mangoes. But the science ultimately wasn’t to hold his interest, and in 1977 he retrained at Trinity College, Bristol, in Greek, Hebrew, and Old Testament studies for theological colleges. His father had been a Classics teacher in Yorkshire, where he grew up, and by his own admission this had put him off subjects in the humanities, but it seemed they were to claim him anyway through a discovery of the Bible, and an adventure in faith. It was at Trinity that he met my Mum, got married at All Souls Langham Place, London, and went out to Malawi ahead of us just after I was born (to Chancellor College, Zomba). By the time my brother was 4 years old, we’d moved to Kenya, where both my parents taught at the Nairobi Evangelical School of Theology, now Africa International University, until 1991.

My father in 2001, his publications, and with my brother and I in Kenya, c.1987

Dad’s faith, from my perspective of a childhood spent abroad, was as vibrant and buoyant as his way with words and stories. He read from or with Bible stories to my brother and I, even into our teenage years (back in the UK). In every home we had a chair that I associate with him reading or praying from, as well as a book-laden study with its own atmosphere of grown-upness. He was a gifted preacher and teacher, and when I compiled a book of acknowledgements for his retirement in 2006, the tributes were overwhelming. He also published a commentary on the Song of Songs (IVP, 1994), and contributed articles to the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (IVP, 1998) – on ‘Zion’, ‘Trees’, ‘Nakedness’, and ‘Kiss’. His teenage daughter at the time did not think the subjects particularly spectacular, though in a letter I’ve kept he seemed quite proud to tell me that this was an ‘artsy’ effort at biblical interpretation – as I was studying fine art at university. Dad could poke fun at church leaders or traditions (especially the British ones), while speaking with pin-sharp honesty and authority. In UK life, his later experiences teaching in Wales (now the Union School of Theology, Bridgend) kept him in touch with international students, but a wry mockery of everything from rain to Reformed seriousness would pervade what was undoubtedly the loss he and my Mum felt at leaving Africa.

When I think of my Dad, I think of someone who wrote things like ENJOY LIFE and SHOOT THE PREACHER in capitals, whilst facing experiences and people and continents with an unshakeable sense of Christ by his side. He was never overbearing (except to labradors who stole his shoes), but kind and funny and steadfast and bright. I imagine Job’s words, below, as his words (he did love a bit of Job, and always the Old Testament – about which he said he learnt more through African eyes than through a thousand Western commentaries). And I forgive him for lampooning my MA thesis writing style in his wedding speech. I proudly claim artsy wordiness as an inherited trait. To the party in heaven for someone who lived wisdom with such humour, I raise my glass. And put on my sunglasses.

He knows the way that I take;

when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.

My feet have closely followed his steps;

I have kept to his way without turning aside.

I have not departed from the commands of his lips;

I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.

Job 23:10-12

Will artists have patrons in heaven?

'Lenten Spring' (2012) at Trinity College Bristol
‘Lenten Spring’ (2012) at Trinity College Bristol

Maundy Thursday in Trinity College sees the finishing of my Lenten installation in the dining room – a progressive installation where I’ve daily been putting up photographs of bulbs growing, both day and night. As always with Lent, it’s symbolic of a journey, and in this case it’s been a journey that has led through challenge and reflection with regard to the wider support for artists in their practice today. It’s fitting that I’m suggesting parallels with Lent and Maundy Thursday in particular, because most artists are sole practitioners, ploughing an individual, singular and sometimes lonely furrow; and most artists maintain a kind of interior spirituality that stays hidden.

Before I get where I’m going, I do want to emphasise that this is a good thing, and normal, and true. The spiritual landscape of prayer and connection to God that Jesus practised was often done in solitude, and was often ‘slow’ time. By which I mean that he resisted the world’s values of being ‘on it’ the whole time, of being always visible in his doing, of needing to build in justification for his singular life. Artists can be examples of this resistance too, which, although it opens us up to misunderstanding of all sorts, remains a positive and VERY culturally necessary thing.

The problems that can arise, as I’ve found them, are to do with a lack of trust that this is ok – a kind of self-destructive, victim mentality can change how we feel about our invisibility. ‘What’s the point? – No-one wants to buy/champion/visit my work.’ When I had to move this Lenten installation, a third of the way through, from its original starting place in a corridor (because some other work of mine had been allocated the space, in a very wobbly exchange relating to miscommunication and unsaid expectations), I really struggled with the motivation to put it up anywhere else at all. I went from feeling the wind behind me, to feeling like everything involved battling the wind. Not just this work in this situation, but I started to question all my aims with my work, all my ability in keeping a project together, and finally took on the assumption that in order to avoid future hurt/failure I had better exert my singularity with a programmatic self-control: lists, deadlines, working harder. At this point, and only very recently, I realised that (good) solitude had turned into (bad) isolation.

Now a logical answer to this situation, if you asked the artist, would probably be patronage. The answer is support – practical, financial, emotional, verbal. And ABSOLUTELY artists can’t and don’t live in a vacuum, we make work for the showing/telling/engaging/living. There is a massive crashing together of idealism with realism here, often uncomfortably so, and it is certainly the case that artists find themselves having to educate their friends/buyers/employers with respect to their needs. Even here at Trinity, where in one light I’m the beneficiary of patronage on a plate for a limited time (studio space and an engaging community), in truth there are deeper cultural gaps in understanding and it’s not the simple answer you might think.

Ultimately, I have to go back to practising trust. Ultimately, when Jesus reached his crunch moment of isolation and misunderstanding on Maundy Thursday, ‘knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, he loved to the end’ (John 13:1-3ish). All things into our hands? Yes, ALL things into our hands. The patronage from heaven is already here.

A visual theology of the Kingdom

'Kingdom Series', 2015
‘Kingdom Series’, 2015

When I gave out 25 disposable cameras to the Trinity College community in the autumn of 2014, I had every thought that I’d need to work a pronounced visual transformation in the results. But the messy, humorous, half-in-half-out, blurred faces and limbs in fact turned out to be the corporeal truth of this place. There is certainly a spirituality here that is rarefied and abstract (in music, conversation or essays), but these pictures reveal an embodied spirituality that is shared in food, in play, in the overlapping of life and space. I like the symbolism too of the underexposed images – approximately half of all the photographs look like a dark fog, where the camera flash was either not used, or was ineffective. ‘Through a glass darkly’ is quite literal here at Trinity! See YouTube for a slideshow I’ve put together of some of the unmodified images.

As I spent time looking through the images, four themes emerged: the Kingdom is backwards, unseen, hungry and little.

The Kingdom is Hungry is a collage from the multitude of eating and drinking photographs that were taken – there were more of these than anything else. The Kingdom as a feast is a key image in the Gospels, and the party at Trinity College happens over every meal and every communion and every cup of tea. Even as the circular form suggests togetherness, the spiral moves outward and upside-down to include honoured guests. Needing physical sustenance is a key focus for spiritual life here. See here for more on the process of making this piece.

The Kingdom is Unseen shows the negative space of figures cut out from photographs. There are 5 groups of people whose ‘unseenness’ in the community was incredibly visible to me, who are found out in the Kingdom: (from left to right) The unborn who will come after us (there were 11 pregnancies amongst the community at the time), the quiet administrators, the leaders who have gone before us, those who didn’t want their photographs taken for this project, and the noisy caretakers. Jesus’ Kingdom made a big deal of those on the edges of society, and those who shrink from physical sight are nevertheless seen where they are.

The Kingdom is Little captures 4 children from Trinity College Day Nursery from above. In their littleness, ‘The Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’ – they are central to a Kingdom community. To notice them, we need to physically look down and the perspective change of a view in plan (rather than a view in profile) is a reminder not of adult aloofness and control but of childish absorption and delight. Littleness can be everything.

The Kingdom is Backwards highlights the physical viewpoint of those photographs where people sit in lectures, in chapel or in churches on placement. When people listened to Jesus speaking, there must have been a similar view facing the backs of others. As much as Trinity is training leaders to be at the front, it is this view that remains unique to the Kingdom’s focus: to positions of humility with each other and to the Old Testament echoes of the back of God. It’s not the place where you can’t see. It’s the place where you can see.

Each theme in this Kingdom series includes a cut-out style (to bring single colour themes to prominence) and a small visual icon as a point of focus. There is a glass of wine, a crozier, toy fish and an altar cross. These icons are directional in that each piece stresses the physicality of looking – we move beyond the contemplation of symbol into the embodiment of symbol. These are symbols which move, are lifted up, are consumed or carried or played with. ‘Living like the Kingdom is near’ (Trinity’s new logo) has that abundance and holistic embrace of life.

I do like to be beside the seaside

Clevedon Pier yesterday at 7.30am and 2.30pm.
Clevedon Pier yesterday at 7.30am and 2.30pm.

In contrast to last week, this week’s focus on my practice involved the opposite of deadline/brief close working at a computer screen: yesterday was the highest tide of the year (the spring perigean) at the Severn Estuary which sees the second-highest tidal difference in the world. I had to spend a day in Clevedon, thanks in part to my involvement on a college-organised quiet day, and so a seaside watch was in the diary a long time earlier. The weekend’s eclipse, supermoon and high tide are all the sort of ancient cataclysmic events that would normally be marked with deep reverence and ascribed symbolism. Here was my small equivalent armed with a camera and a thermos.

The best day of photographing I have ever had was something similar – in 2010, I settled myself at the point on the English side of the Severn Estuary called the New Passage, and photographed the tide going out every half-an-hour between 8am and 3pm. Yesterday, at Clevedon Pier, I followed the same rule, but increased to every 15 minutes. The experience is both systematically measured and exponentially felt. I think it appeals to my right and left brain simultaneously – on the one hand, I’m constantly clock-watching and horizon-watching and focus-point watching; on the other hand, the constraints against doing anything else allow your mind to relax and tread water. More than that, I found myself exploring a spiritual exercise of retreat: even as the tide pulled out, I was imagining a real perspective on my life in which events, children, emails, jobs weren’t all piling in a big wave, and were in fact ‘going out’ on the tide.

I have yet to decide how these images are going to go together for a finished piece – possibly an animated lenticular which plays on the vertical change, rather than the horizontal change in The New Passage. But I will be trying to hold onto the verse ringing in my ears, the verse I passed on to those 7 photographers who joined me for a different perspective in their day, Psalm 18:15. To me, this verse shakes the self-absorption out the equation, because the tidal perspective is not ultimately about me.

Then the channels of the sea were seen,
and the foundations of the world were laid bare
at your rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of your nostrils.