The Many Pleasures of Oxford

Radcliffe Camera OxfordAn ancient place

The exact date of the foundation of the city of Oxford is uncertain, but the place is ancient.  Sited on an important crossing point across the Thames, which formed the frontier between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, Oxford started as a ford for oxen (Oxenaforda).   The castle (now just a mound) dates from 1071 and the oldest standing building, the Saxon tower of St Michael at the Northgate, was built in 1040. The Domesday book records the right of the town’s Freemen to graze animals in Port Meadow free of charge – a right still exercised today. The University started in monastic halls, though none of these survived the suppression of the monasteries in the 1530s. The city was well established as an academic centre by the 13th century with University, Balliol, and Merton Colleges all founded during that century.

Academic life in Oxford was characterised by murder in the stories of ’90s TV detective Inspector Morse, and this violence in academia was foreshadowed by a turbulent relationship between Oxford’s town people and students. The most notorious incident occurred in 1354 in the Swyndlestock Tavern (a bank today), when two students took issue with the innkeeper about the quality of his wine. This dispute quickly escalated into an armed conflict that lasted three days and resulted in around 90 deaths.  Despite incidents like this and regular scholastic riots, by the mid 14th century the University was well established enough for Edward III to pay tribute to it for both its contribution to learning and the services to the state of Oxford graduates.  Several colleges were founded every century and there are now 38 in total.


Oxford’s growth was inevitably accompanied by some  reversals.  In the 12th century a fire burned the city to the ground and the black death of the 14th century reduced the population heavily; as did the sweating sickness epidemic of the 16th century.  The university benefited from these depopulations by buying up vacant property and continuing to grow its estates.

In the late 18th century Oxford connected to Coventry and the Thames, and in the mid In 1844, the Great Western Railway linked Oxford with London.  The city became more industrial when the automotive industry was established in nearby Cowley by William Morris, who built the Morris Garage in Longwall street in 1910.  The need for more space bought a move to a factory 1913 at Cowley and mass production followed, resulting in  Cowley expanding into a large industrial centre.  Despite its canal and railway links, the city had remained a tight knit , conservative and academic town, with the the university press the only large-scale employer.  The car industry transformed Oxford into one of the major industrial cities of southern England, though happily the architectural gems of the old city have been well preserved, also being spared the devastation meted out to so many other cities during World War II.

The sights of Oxford

As you might expect from such a historic city, there are numerous sights to be enjoyed in Oxford, which particularly photogenic, though it is often very crowded, especially in the summer. Here are my top ten:

  1. Cowley Road Festival OxfordThe cobbled Radcliffe Square containing the iconic Radcliffe Camera (part of the Bodleian Library), and surrounded by the ancient trio of Brasenose College, All Souls College and the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, with its excellent view from the top of the tower.
  2. The old pubs of the city, including the Kings Arms (1607), near Radcliffe Square; the Eagle and Child, frequented by J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and located on St Giles; the old coaching inn of the Lamb and Flag, also on St Giles; the 13th century Turf Tavern, and the Bear, one of the oldest of all, with its wood panels and collection of 4,500 ties.
  3. The Covered Market, which opened in 1774 and contains a fantastic selection of fresh produce, cafes and boutique stalls.
  4. Bohemian Jericho, which contains Freud, one of the most notable cocktail bars in the city, located behind the ancient looking Greek columns of St Paul’s Church on Walton Street and the excellent Indian cuisine of the Standard, also on the same street.
  5. The Sheldonian Theatre, designed by Christopher Wren for the University with its busts of the Philosophers or Emperors.
  6. Christ Church Meadow which borders the Rivers Cherwell and Isis (the local name for the Thames) which is ideal for a stroll.  The buildings of Oxford’s largest college are also very beautiful, though even busier now with visitors since the filming of the Harry Potter films.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland were also inspired and written there.  The Tom Tower is one of the most imposing sights – the upper part of the tower was which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who had himself been a student at the college.
  7. The eclectic collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum, founded by Lieutenant-General Augustus Pitt Rivers, an anthropologist who collected more than 20,000 objects from around the British Empire.
  8. The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, on Beaumont Street, which was the world’s first university museum, and will content the culturally curious for several hours at a time.
  9. The ethnically diverse restaurants, shops and people of Cowley Road, with its annual carnival. This started in 2000 and now attracts crowds of up to 45,000 people, with live music and food stalls outside the many restaurants.
  10. The ancient grazing land of Port Meadow and the nearby pub The Trout, located on the banks of the Thames.

I lived in Oxford in the late ’80s and early ’90s, moving up from Deal in Kent, my home town.  Initially I rented a room in a crumbling gothic mansion in Norham Gardens, where I taught English to foreign students.  It was post graduate house populated by academics including a semiotician, several mathematicians and a philosopher.  I was asked to show my rather less distinguished Degree certificate to the landlady before I was able to move in.  Later, as Academic Representative for a German language school, I lived in a damp basement flat in Iffley Road – which gave me the opportunity to get to know the nearby Cowley Road.   During that time I came to be very fond of the City of Oxford and have lived in the county ever since.  I have been photographing the Radcliffe Camera for over 20 years, but the image included in this post is the first one I actually feel does it any justice.  It was taken on a wet, cold evening in January 2014 when hardly anyone was around and the sky was full of drama.  I took the shot with an old school 24mm  ƒ/2.8D prime lens originally designed for film cameras mounted on a Nikon D600 (a troublesome body I intend to trade in for a D500 at some point).  The Emperor’s head and the Cowley Road Festival shots were both taken on a Nikon Df with an AF-S 24-120mm ƒ/4 lens.

The Importance of Form

Marina City ChicagoWe have had colour photography since the 1930s and the invention of Kodachrome, though it took until the 1970s for it become the norm.  So why has black and white photography persisted?

Perhaps the most obvious difference between colour and b&w photography is that unlike their colour equivalents, black and white images are not direct renditions of their subjects.   By omitting colour and substituting shades of grey, black and white photography presents an abstract and therefore less realistic image.   This takes us into the representational world of art, where the artist tries to portray what is perceived and interpreted with the mind rather than what is seen directly by the eye.  Both the artist and the photographer are working with a 3D subject in a 2D medium and this is where black and white photograph has an advantage over a colour rendition – black and white excels at tone; which describes the darkness or lightness of a particular area of an image.  This is important as tone is essential to convey the illusion of form – or how the subject looks in three dimensions.  Black and white draws more attention to the shadows and lines that depict form and gives a better illusion of depth.    This is one of the reasons that black and white is often an effective medium for both landscapes and architectural shots as it can emphasise the shapes and forms within the scene.  The case for black and white is even stronger with a side lit photo where light  intensity varies across the person or object and the scene is subject to strong shadows.  This is one of the reasons why I am fond of film noir which uses a lot of side lighting, shadow and contrast as opposed to the the more evenly exposed lighting of mainstream Hollywood.

On to my example, which is a shot of the columnar and iconic Marina City Towers on Chicago’s Riverfront, designed by architect Bertrand Goldberg.  This is one of Chicago’s most notable buildings and was designated a city landmark in 2015. I was much taken with this 65-storey building complex, the tallest residential concrete building in the world at the time of completion in 1964, and known locally as the ‘corn cobs’, as I was driven to my hotel in a taxi.     At the time I thought it was the world’s most elegant car park, but actually only the lower 19 floors are used for parking, whilst the upper floors contain apartments, restaurants and a concert hall.  The towers were used as a back drop for a chase scene in Steve McQueen’s 1980 film ‘The Hunter’ .  In his last film appearance, McQueen played a bounty hunter who is himself being pursued by a psychotic killer and chases a fugitive up the parking ramp in one of the towers before the car he is pursuing skids off the edge into the Chicago River.

I shot the towers from several locations, including the river, whilst on an architectural tour of the city, and eventually captured this image, which I felt depicted the organic form of the building best – the contrast between the light edges of the circular elements and the dark background, together with the sweeping curves of the tower in the foreground, draw the eye  and help describe its form.  It was shot in the morning, and, as usual,  I used a circular polariser to darken the sky and increased the contrast between the building and its background.  I took the shot with a Nikon Df with a ‘walk around’ 28-300 lens at ISO 200/45mm/f11/1/250 sec.  The towers have a constantly changing pattern of light and shadow over the course of the day and are an ideal subject for black and white photography as well as a great piece of architecture.  I was much taken with Chicago, which I visited for the first time in 2015 – it is undoubtedly one of the finest cities for modern architecture in the world and I am keen to return to capture more of it, but my enduring memory of my first visit is those iconic, sci-fi columns of Marina City.

Darkness at Noon in New York

Darkness at Noon in New YorkThe Chrysler Building is a favourite of mine, and a great subject for black and white photography.    The metallic exterior, the sunburst on the crown and the metal eagles make it an architectural wonder for me.

The Chrysler is a reflection of both the Art Deco era and the machine age and has strong automotive accents.   at 319 m, it was was briefly the world’s tallest building before that honour passed to the Empire State Building in 1931.  It was the headquarters of the Chrysler Corporation from 1930 until the mid-1950s and is still the tallest brick building in the world, albeit with a steel frame, and the 5th tallest building in New York.  The corners of the 61st floor are decorated with those fabulous metal eagles whilst replicas of the 1920s Chrysler bonnet ornaments (aka radiator caps) adorn the corners of the 31st floor.

I took the shot you can see here on a Nikon D300 with an 18-200mm lens at 112mm.  It was shot from 42nd Street in New York City at ground level and the picture was taken in broad daylight, in the early afternoon.   This statement sometimes results in disbelief, but at night what is most visible of the crown of the building is the triangular illuminated windows, so the building appears quite unlike my picture.    A quick search on Google Images for ‘Chrysler Building at night’ will confirm the difference.  The effect you can see here, which I refer to as ‘Darkness at Noon’ relies on  a good quality circular polariser, the nature of the camera’s light meter, and an underexposure/red filter combination during mono coversion.  Let me break this down step by step.

A circular polariser is an indispensible piece of kit that increases color saturation and decrease reflections.  It is also one of the only lens filters the effect of which cannot be replicated by editing.  Importantly, it can also darken skies, which is what I was using one for in this instance.  I used a Hoya Pro-1, which does the job very well.

The second part of the equation is not a technique but a property of the camera, whose reflective light meter wants to average out every scene to middle grey.  What this means in practice is that the brighter the subject (building) is, the darker the background (sky) will be.  This is why the sky looks dark blue in many Mediterranean holiday photos – the white buildings darken the sky.  I took a lot of shots of the Chrysler (around 50) and one in particular had a brighter building and a darker sky, as it had caught the sunlight particularly well at that moment.  So, I took the best shot I had, in which the sky was already dark blue – helped along by the circular polariser – and did my raw editing in Aperture, adjusting the curves into a gentle ‘S’ shape to make the image more punchy.

From there I moved on to Photoshop, to perform the mono conversion.  I use the Silver Efex Pro plugin, which is an amazing bit of software – it has a powerful set of options but also a rich variety of presets, which makes it easy to use.  I selected the ‘underexpose’ preset and added the red filter, which together will turn a dark sky pitch black, and the image was complete: a silver building on a black background.   Or perhaps, a silver building caught in a flash of darkness…