In a series of black and white images shot on 35mm film, Paddy Summerfield (b. 1947) documents his mother’s Alzheimer’s and his father’s dedication to caring for her. The photobook, titled Mother and Father (2014), captures the final period of a 60-year marriage, charting grief, loss and love. Figures hold hands on a bench, a woman curls over in an outdoor chair, whilst long shadows of the afternoon slope across immaculately cut grass. The artist observes tenderness and the rhythms of two lives entangled within each other. The result is deeply moving, as Summerfield explains to Sean O’Hagan in The Guardian (2014): “I recorded my mother’s loss of the world, my father’s loss of his wife and, eventually my loss of them both.”
This is the basis for Dewi Lewis’ latest release Pictures From the Garden, a collection of powerful photographic essays by seven leading UK photographers: Alex Schneideman, Alys Tomlinson, Jem Southam, Matthew Finn, Nik Roche, Sian Davey and Vanessa Winship. In order to contribute to the book, each artist travelled to Summerfield’s home in Oxford, taking pictures in the very same surroundings. A landscape of personal connection endures, as shrubs, flowers and relics of the original title are revisited.
Alex Schneideman writes, “In these pictures made between July 2016 and January 2023 there is an alternative narrative in which Paddy and Patricia have become the parents; a repeat of the nurturing relationship lived out in the same garden and the same house in a different time. […] Now I am the observer. Paddy’s photographs document the light and space between him and his parents. My photographs record the afterglow of that space.” Summerfield is apparent, this time in front of the lens, appearing in moments of laughter, vulnerability and fragility. In one photo, the artist sits on a plastic chair, allowing himself to be a leg rest for his wife who joyously leans back, basking in the sun. In another, dressed in a blue sweater, he wistfully looks upward, as if predicting the white flare of the camera.
There are no pretences in the book. Aspects of aging are evident in person and landscape. Images by Alys Tomlinson for example, exhibit thickets of laurel and willow, replacing what were once trim beds and neat shrubberies. Ferns, daisies and snowdrops spill out of their pots, declaring a new undergrowth in the soil beneath the kitchen windows. There is an unsaid understanding of a landscape that can no longer be tended. In a shot by Vanessa Winship, two foxes bury their heads in an uncut lawn – a subtle reminder of the passing of the family dog. And, yet these are the mementoes of a life lived vibrantly and fervently, where saplings planted 60 years ago cast an embracing shade across the grass today.
Perspective makes its way to the fore. Layered narratives emerge as windows become key focal points. Sunshine pours through glass, spreading across floors, furniture, chopping boards, couches and sleeping and sitting figures. In a photograph by Nik Roche, a linen shirt hangs from the top of a frame. Cold light floods through the clothing’s seams, illuminating its sheer bodice with fractions of white. In other sections, views are split into squares, thrust through misty and watermarked panels, evocative of the works of Saul Leiter (b. 1923). Jem Southam explains that framework reflects the domestic, “where it all melds into one, a living tableau inside their very own camera obscura. The whole, pulsing, with the history of Paddy’s life.”
The garden is the cradle of these relationships, as it “encourages the sinews of the human heart to entwine and grow down into the earth.” In these scenes, the camera works within the realms of privacy, acting as a lens of affirmation, respect and warmth. The project underlines the words of curator and photographer John Szarkowski (b. 1925) who argues art develops through tradition, as one generation learns from the work of others. The artist says, “In the past decade a new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach toward more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it.” The sentiment is clear – the photobook must be a means to an expressive and compassionate existence.
Words: Chloe Elliott
1. © Jem Southam
2. © Nik Roche
3. © Jem Southam
4. © Vanessa Winship