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Paddy Summerfield’s Empty Days for PYLOT
Photography Paddy Summerfield, courtesy of PYLOT

These photos question what it means to be human

Religion, sex and death intertwine in this series – a reflection of a dark and anxious world we all inhabit

This feature originally appeared in PYLOT magazine, issue 3 – a London-based, all-analogue publication that says no to airbrushing. Find out more about the magazine here, or purchase here

“My work is ordinary enough, no manipulation or photo-shopping, no wilfully quirky angles or staged and contrived scenes. I set out to show groupings of pictures where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I want to express something hidden, a world of mysteries, something unexplained” – Paddy Summerfield.

These powerful black and white photographs come from Empty Days, an extensive essay, made over years, where Summerfield's vision shows a troubled and troubling world. Here, eight images from Empty Days are grouped into an enigmatic narrative where beauty and melancholy turn to dismay and terror. Yet nothing shown is, of itself, remarkable, though the image-making has Summerfield's characteristic clarity and organisation. The power comes from juxtaposition; strong images become stronger by what is not shown. As Summerfield says: “The decisive moment is not always to be found in the single image but is carried through into the next”. Links between the images are more than visual, and the combinations develop the metaphors of this layered narrative.

The sequencing creates an emotive story. Initially, we encounter the unfathomable stare of a woman beneath a chandelier. Her face is shadowed: there are no clues about that place, or why she is there. The triangular shapes of the chandelier crystals are echoed in the next image by sunlight falling onto a short flight of steps. Here, a solitary woman, seen from a high view-point, approaches along wet pavements. We are told nothing more. In the next pairing, a girl turns away, in perfect harmony with nature. The rhythms of the composition – her dark hair balanced by massed trees, her hairline and neck echoing the sky-line - unite her completely to the landscape she gazes on. We share her gaze. But this leads us to the grave-yard image: a reminder of our mortality. Here, Summerfield shares that old tradition of “the skull beneath the skin”, grimly recalled by T S Eliot in Whispers of Immortality (1918). Leaning under a wintry sunlight, the tombstones stretch as far as the eye can see; this is a procession we will all join; even the most beautiful will not be spared.

“I set out to show what it is to be human, and understand something about the world, and ourselves. I guess it’s about knowing something before we die” – Paddy Summerfield

So Summerfield creates a sense of a metaphysical journey, moving from a cityscape into nature, and from beauty to decay. The narrative then leads us to a greater darkness....

A woman is framed in a doorway, stairs behind lead upwards. Her posture suggests sexual invitation, but her crossed foot, her angled elbow block the entrance. Thus the image becomes forbidding. Next, a direct portrait seems to comment on this woman, and the dark back-story that follows. A young man puts his hands to his face, expressing pity? Horror? He looks on, helpless, as if at the unfolding of some disaster. He stares at us.... in warning, in reproach? The emotional force comes from what Summerfield withholds: all we know is that it is too late. The final images are both horrifying and mysterious: a half-dressed woman collapses under a weight of some grief or despair, followed by a child's scuffed shoe. We experience a terrible uncertainty. Though the shoe image clearly indicates a household of neglect, it might also signal far worse abuses, symbolised by the shabby stairs where it lies, discarded. Does it explain the woman's past, her current despair? Perhaps she is a drinker, trying to escape pain. We cannot unravel this, cannot know if she harmed her child, or if she is herself a victim. How do these two pictures connect to the woman in the doorway? If she is the brothel-keeper, this becomes a story of exploitation and child-prostitution. Is the collapsed woman her younger self, is that her shoe? There are several possible readings of this sequence, with no “correct” answer. What we do know, unmistakably, is that Summerfield has captured the pain of inner torment.

In Empty Days, Summerfield includes the epic themes that have inspired artists through centuries: religion, sex, death, and creates a disconnected, anxious world, where loneliness pervades.

Throughout the essay, he has a psychological approach, documenting a personal life, rather than depicting a society that fails the weak and vulnerable. From ordinary life he finds images that carry a symbolic weight, the outward markers of inward chaos. They become emblems of emotional isolation, that we can all recognise. Throughout Summerfield's work, abandonment and loss are his main concerns: Empty Days is no exception. 

Summerfield says: “I set out to show what it is to be human, and understand something about the world, and ourselves. I guess it's about knowing something before we die.”