The photographer spent two years documenting life at "the jewel in the crown of the British establishment".
Martin Parr's new book both confirms and challenges the many preconceptions about one of Britain's most famous institutions, the University of Oxford. A "training camp" for the nation's leaders, Oxford embodies all the contradictions and oddities of British society at large, according to Parr.
To accompany this exclusive first publication of the photographer's new work, we sat down with Parr for some poached eggs on toast and discussed the motivational qualities of post-Brexit anger, the danger of trying to capture nostalgia and the importance of not forgetting just how weird Britain is.
VICE: You often describe yourself as "nosy", offering you curiosity as a motivation: photography as a means of discovering closeted or strange communities.
Martin Parr: Yes, and also as a means of trying to understand my own relationship with this weird country, which I both love and hate. It's a form of therapy. An attempt to try and come to terms with my impossible-to-come-to-terms-with feelings about a place I am a part of. I see my ongoing work on Britain as having different chapters, and this Oxford work is part of the "Establishment Chapter". I started with a few public schools – Harrow and Christ's Hospital – I did the City of London, the British Army, and now Oxford University, which is the jewel in the crown of the British establishment.
How did the Oxford book come about?
I met the guy who is running the Bodleian [the main research library at the University of Oxford], who is very pro-photography. While all the Ivy League Universities have departments of photography, there's not one professor of photography in Oxford. So to find someone working there who is interested in photography is very unusual. This idea of doing a commission came up. It's obviously great to have funding for a project – but the main thing you get from that sort of situation is access. Oxford is still a very closed school.
I met with a photographer the other day who had worked in the Vatican for three months and was, he says, never alone. I assume you weren't chaperoned constantly?
I was assigned someone who would handle all the negotiations around access for me. Getting permission from Oxford University as a whole to photograph doesn't necessarily mean that you have permission to go into any of the 38 colleges; each has its own rules.
In terms of the wider preconceptions about Oxford – sandstone spires and students balancing mountains of books on their handlebars and so on – how true is it to that caricature?
I would say that, generally, the clichés and traditions of Oxford are still adhered to. People like them. It's part of the reason that people want to go there. And it's also part of the training for the establishment. The ritual of the dinners, the etiquette, the social life aspect, is basically teaching you to go on and apply that in your later life. If you look at the number of people in power in this country with Oxbridge backgrounds, it's staggering. It's a training camp to run the country. It's beautiful, and intimidating. There's also a lot of research going on there, and that's something that I did also photograph. Of course, research is not as photogenic as tradition.
You've done projects all over the UK. In light of that, what's your feeling about the country's current mood and direction?
It's a country I have mixed feelings about, and those feelings have been heightened by Brexit. In the 80s, part of my motivation was a level of accumulated anger – with Thatcher and the times we were living in. That anger has been rejuvenated in me by the Brexit vote. Like any other member of the liberal elite I was appalled by the vote. That's given me incentive to go out and photograph. The therapy aspect, where the love and hate can come out, is just exacerbated by that. I just did a project in Hull, which I am sure voted overwhelmingly to leave, but when you actually go out and meet these people, they are terrific. You and I live in bubbles. Oxford, of course, is another of those bubbles…
Your work has an ability to remind people how odd the familiar and everyday is. Do you feel that, as far as photography goes, Britain is an overlooked subject?
Absolutely. People have become complacent about the places we go to often. I could quite happily do a project here, in this café. This is great subject matter. When we look at this in 30 years' time we will be amazed. Some of the most unpromising subjects I have covered, like supermarkets or people filling up cars with petrol – people think these can't be interesting, but years later they are fascinating because things change. We are not really aware of how interesting our own circumstances are. Every time you move house, or decorate, you should photograph what you are about destroy.
I grew up in Vaxuhall, and for the first 15-odd years of my life Vauxhall Cross was an utter shit tip. It was a muddy coach-park, a train station and a derelict roundabout. Not that it's beautiful today, but as soon as it changed I forgot almost totally what was there before. Its amazing how fast change and the new becomes permanent in the mind.
Absolutely. I mean, now, everyone photographs their food. But no one thinks to photograph their homes. The rules of photography are always fascinating to me. The selfie, the smart phone – these have changed the rules, but there are still certain parameters we won't cross: if you go to a wedding you take your camera, if you go to a funeral you don't. There's no reason why that's the case.
Talking of parameters, and social conventions of sorts, we published your snow polo photos a while back. Those clearly skewered the ridiculous, surreal luxuries of that portion of society. Few people object to sending up people like that, but your work covering the working classes in the UK has been criticised – many times – for being mocking.
Oh of course – I've heard that all before. People said that I was exploiting [the working classes]. If you showed my photos to the snow polo lot, I don't think they would say, "Oh, that's exploitation." I feel I am pretty democratic in this respect. That sense of mischief – which is how I would describe it, rather than exploitation – is key. I show things as I see them. We are an absurd bunch. An absurd race – the British... most peoples are, but I happen to know more about the British because I am from here.
In which ways did you find that Oxford was a mirror to the larger cultural and societal peculiarities of Britain?
It has everything. It has tradition, it's on the cutting edge of research, it's evolving yet staying still. There's the "town and gown" conflict – they need each other, yet there's tension between the two. All the contradictions of British society exist there.
Is there anywhere you have ever worked that you found disappointing?
Not really. I am always fascinated. With Oxford, for example, it was meant to be one year's project; it became two years. I don't know how many trips I made there, 50 or 60. I could have gone on for ten years. Once you start digging, you realise the complexity of a place.
Do you feel that, as well as the therapeutic aspect of photography, you also have a sense of obligation to educate or inform?
There's a sense of responsibility. I have to photograph, record and interpret the times we live in. The archive I have built up about the UK is pretty substantial. And, in the end, I hope it has some merit. Some legacy.
Do you mean by that, a feeling that you need to capture the present before it's lost? Every time a pub I like closes down, I wish that someone had done a photo project on it.
We must not fall into the trap of thinking photography is a way of recording nostalgia. We must focus on things that are at their peak! Don't just photograph the pub that's about to close, the factory that's on its last legs. They are closing for a reason – they aren't viable, they are the past already. We should be thinking about how to represent the times we are in. Photograph Primark! The things that are alive and well.
Finally, I always like to ask photographers about objectivity. Some feel the idea of objectivity in photography is ridiculous, while others claim to be straightforwardly recording events as they are.
Subjectivity is the thing. The only important thing is the subject, and my relationship to it. That is exactly what drives my work in the UK. My relationship to this country is tenuous, complex and changing. Anyone who says [their photos are] just an objective look is kidding themselves – you are constantly thinking about where you go, where you stand, what you photograph, how you edit the images, the tone that edit gives out. There are so many decisions that are personal. And they should be personal, because that is what's interesting.
See more photos below:
All photos © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
Oxford by Martin Parr, with an afterword by Simon Winchester, is released on the 7th of September, 2017 by Oxford University Press, and a selection of the work will be on display at the Weston Library, Oxford, as part of Photo Oxford 2017, from the 8th of September to the 22nd of October.
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