THE lives of people living on a typical East Oxford street have been documented for a unique photographic exhibition.
Photographer Martin Stott has spent four years creating an artistic record of the inhabitants of Divinity Road, off Cowley Road, in 120 pictures.
The camera enthusiast has spent four years creating a visual archive of the road, where he has lived for more than 30 years.
The interactive exhibition has gone on show this weekend, with photographs on display outside the street’s Co-op shop. The show is part of Oxfordshire Artweeks – a month-long festival of creativity which sees artists showing their work in studios, homes, galleries, workshops and, in the case of Mr Stott, out on the street.
Mr Stott described the street as one the longest, most transient and diverse in the city, with a cross-section of people reflected in his portraits.
The project was prompted by his previous project, the Cowley Road Cookbook, which included photos of local people.
He says: “It was such a lovely collection I thought, ‘why not do this for Divinity Road?’ After all, the most interesting things often happen on your own doorstep.”
He goes on: “In 2006, Divinity Road was identified by a market research company as the street with the widest range of household incomes in England, so issues of wealth, poverty, class, race, and gender are all apparent in the photographs. I was conscious that the street seems to be becoming both richer and poorer at the same time – like the rest of the country.
“I have lived in Divinity Road for 35 years, been a local councillor, chair of a residents association, and a school governor, so I was well integrated into the community. That was important as I had to have people’s trust if I was going to show up on their doorstep and ask to photograph them in their homes.
“I generally interacted with people four times before we took the photos, and finding a time when all the members of a busy family were around and in the right frame of mind could be quite a challenge.
“Some people were concerned about their possessions or their children being in the photos – although no one’s house is identified for security reasons – and so, for some photos, we came up with a compromise where children were shown hidden in the branches of a tree or playing, facing away.”
“Officially there are 206 houses on Divinity Road, but there are actually a lot more households than that as a house which looks is if it is all one residence may be home to a couple in a basement flat and another on the top floor as well as in the main house.
“My original idea was to photograph every household living on Divinity Road, Oxford, over a three year period. However, the population is very transient, a transience reflected in a number of the household portraits with people about to leave the country, moving away, being evicted, moving in, or moving from one house to another.
“Trying to take photos of all the people on the street would be like painting the Forth Bridge!”
He goes on: “The project gave me a real insight into people’s lives and it was a surprising how they can change incredibly quickly: a number of households lost a partner or co-habitee for various reasons during the course of the project and not every one is still alive.
“The oldest resident, Greta Smith, died a couple of years ago, so it’s a lovely memory to have a photo of her well and at home.”
“The final set includes 120 households as well as several photos of people who spend time on the street who don’t actually live there – regular visitors to one of the Homeless Oxfordshire houses for example – and members of staff at the Co-op. The Co-op, outside which I will be exhibiting for Artweeks is a real hub for the community and it was important that the pictures were displayed right here in the street.
“To punctuate the series of portraits, there will also be occasional eccentric photos, of the things people don’t look at on the street like storms drain and electricity substations. Both joyful and challenging, this micro-portrait is a fascinating snapshot of everyday life in Oxford and a microcosm of things that are happening everywhere and perhaps tells us something about our wider condition.
“It will also serve as a brilliant record of the area, a snapshot of social history that will be interesting for people to look back on in the future.
“As a community-building project, it has also been really gratifying: people are recognising one another out and about and stopping to chat about the photos to people they’ve never met before. The exhibition will be a continuation of that. I’m making it interactive, and will be encouraging people to make comments, to embellish the posters photos with speech bubbles or use post-it notes to add their thoughts.”
Oxfordshire Artweeks Director Esther Laffery said: “I love this project because it’s such a real snapshot of Oxford itself that isn’t the dreaming spires stereotype and life.
"Artweeks is a festival full of fabulous creations by designers and makers from jewellers to sculptors and there’s some top class art and yet there are also lots of community groups involved, including hundreds of people from all backgrounds, walks of life, with a myriad of ideas and passions.
"It’s not only a festival of art – it’s a festival that celebrates people too and this is a wonderful showcase of that.”
See Martin Stott’s project at the Co-op, Divinity Road, Oxford today and tomorrow.
For more on Artweeks, head to artweeks.org