Shooting the establishment: Martin Parr's Oxford

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“You could say I’m a member of the establishment,” says Martin Parr, the Magnum Photos member who has published early 50 monographs, had solo shows at The Barbican, Jeu de Paume, and Maison Europeenne de la Photographie, guest-directed the Rencontres d’Arles, and co-authored The Photobook: A History. We’re discussing his latest exhibition and book, Oxford, which was shot on commission for the world-famous university, is going on show in its Weston Library, and will be published by the Oxford University Press.

Given this backdrop, it’s probably not surprising to find that Parr “didn’t set out to ‘do a number’” on Oxford and its inhabitants but, this is Martin Parr and the images are still offbeat and gently humorous. “I have my own views, it happens every time – you go in with certain prejudices, and you have your own interpretation of what you see,“ he says. “To certain extent my prejudices about Oxford were confirmed – it is people training up to run the country.

“You can feel that happening, that process. You can take a picture of someone eating in the evening and catch all that formality and small talk. For me it’s part of a wider project on the English establishment, which also includes projects on public school, the City of London, and the British Army.”

Thrashing, Oxford, 2016 © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Parr started shooting in Oxford back in 2013 and, though he was originally commissioned for one year, went on until well into 2016, making “50 or 60” trips from his Bristol home. He says he could have “kept going for ten years”, that the more he saw the more complexities he found, and adds that he took “thousands of pictures – approximately 20,000”. “Which ones did I put in? The good ones!” he says. “Good ones are very difficult to find, you have to have balance and think about what you’re trying to depict.”

Parr was paid to take the photographs but says that the main advantage of working with the university was the access he was given – originally commissioned by the Bodleian, Oxford’s main research library, he then had to negotiate with each of the 38 colleges for permission to shoot. “Sometimes I wanted to photograph things and was declined, I got access but I didn’t get full access,” he says. “Some things I didn’t even attempt to get access to – for example Bullingdon [the notorious all-male dining club that counts David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson among its former members].”

Simon Tsang, custodian, Christ Church, Oxford, 2016 © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Once given access to a college or event he found most people pretty willing to be photographed – sometimes they wanted to see what he’d shot and he wouldn’t hide the images, sometimes they didn’t want a particular shot to be used “but generally it was ok”. “If I was shooting at a ball they would all want photographs of themselves,” he laughs.

The finished result covers the pomp and tradition you might expect, but it also Oxford’s world-class research (though Parr wryly told Vice recently that “research is not as photogenic as tradition”), plus big events such as Queerfest and smaller social occasions. “It’s not about one image, it’s the accumulation of images,” he says. “You can’t pin it down to just one thing.”

Martin Parr: Oxford is on show at Blackwell Hall, Weston Library, Oxford from 08 September-22 October, and is part of Photo Oxford 2017. Oxford by Martin Parr is published by Oxford University Press on 07 September, priced £30.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy