Alex Schneideman remembers his friend Paddy Summerfield

Paddy Summerfield © Alex Schneideman

One of several artists inspired by Summerfield’s iconic Mother and Father series, Schneideman reflects on the life of an Oxford icon

Paddy Summerfield was broadly considered Oxford’s greatest photographer since Henry Fox Talbot. He was imbued with the city’s unique history and art from infancy, living in the same Summertown house from the age of two until his death on 11 April. Having studied at Guildford School of Art, Summerfield became known as a photographer in the 1980s, working primarily in black-and-white, but it was not until the 2014 publication of his seminal book, Mother and Father, that he came to the forefront of British documentary photography.

The book depicts Summerfield’s parents in the garden of their north Oxford home as they tended to the lawn and plants – and to each other. We watch as Summerfield’s father increasingly cares for his partner, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, before her eventual absence from the pictures and finally, the departure of his father too. In most of the photographs, the couple’s faces are turned away from Summerfield’s gaze. The images are typified by a certain spirituality; Summerfield maintained that his work had always been about “abandonment and loss” as his parents had turned their attention inward following the tragic early death of Summerfield’s older sister when he was two years old. And yet the artist insisted that Mother and Father stood as a durational “love letter” to his elders.

From the series Mother and Father © Paddy Summerfield
From the series Mother and Father © Paddy Summerfield

“A visitor to the Summerfield home would often find Paddy ensconced in writing, reading or discussion with friends and photographers”

Although Summerfield had been making pictures since the late-1960s – and had exhibited extensively across the UK and even internationally – Mother and Father was his first major publication, establishing his groundbreaking use of a unique and emotional photographic perspective. His work became representative of what became known as the ‘psychological perspective’ – in which the artist’s compositions place the viewer at the scene’s emotional apex, blurring the boundaries between the subject, the photographer and viewer.

Several more books were to follow including The Oxford Pictures 1968-1978 (2016), Empty Days (2018), The Holiday Pictures (2019) and Home Movie (2021). Each subsequent title added to Summerfield’s reputation as one of the most important contemporary British documentary photographers. In his final years, Summerfield worked mainly in colour, using an old flip phone to photograph the garden and the people who surrounded him. Some of these were published in his final book The Beginnings of Eternity (2024), an “apparent travelogue” which also concludes in a garden.

In 2019, Summerfield married his partner, Patricia Baker-Cassidy, who by this time had become his de-facto producer. Baker-Cassidy brought order to the chaos of Paddy’s now notorious bins of thousands of negatives that he had accumulated over the decades. A visitor to the Summerfield home would often find Paddy ensconced in writing, reading or discussion with friends and photographers while Baker-Cassidy worked diligently with a film scanner, as together they put together numerous maquettes for planned publications.

Paddy Summerfield and Patricia Baker-Cassidy © Alex Schneideman

The well respected Oxford Photography Group was often hosted by Summerfield and Baker-Cassidy at his home. He supported the group and worked closely with individual photographers, many of whom went on to enjoy their own success. Almost ten years after the publication of Mother and Father, a new body of work was made by a group of photographers (including myself, Vanessa Winship, Siân Davey, Matthew Finn, Alys Tomlinson, Nik Roche and Jem Southam) who wanted to preserve the garden where Mother and Father had taken form – and to pay homage to Summerfield’s work. The resulting images were published last year as Pictures from the Garden (as ever by Dewi Lewis) and an exhibition was staged in Oxford, supported by The Photographers’ Gallery.

Summerfield’s work was supported by curators, academics and other photographers such as Richard Ovenden, Nicholas Serota and Martin Parr, Bill Jay and Peter Turner, who edited Creative Camera in the late-1980s. Summerfield’s own exhibition list is long and varied. He showed in group presentations alongside the likes of André Kertesz, John Goto and Gerry Badger (who has written extensively about Summerfield’s work). His work is held in national, international, private and institutional collections, with the Bodleian Library recently completing their acquisition of Summerfield’s extensive archive and plans for a major exhibition next year.

It was a great honour for me to give Paddy what would turn out to be his final solo show, The Holiday Pictures, at Flow Photographic Gallery in 2019. Sue Davies, the founder of The Photographers’ Gallery, then in failing health herself, made the journey from Surrey to North West London to see the show, one of the last she would visit before her own passing. Paddy was the most photographic person I have ever known. It was as impossible to distinguish the man from the medium as it is, sometimes, to discern the sea from the sky on a blue day, when both seem to merge into one.