When we travel or relocate to a new city or country we inevitably arrive with expectations. We have an image in our minds of what it will look and feel like to be on the ground. Sometimes the preconceived experience bears a remarkable resemblance to the realized one. But sometimes reality blindsides us completely. Either way, any place we visit or live in can never experienced fully—engagement is always subjective on so many levels so that, even if you live in the same location all your life, you will only ever know a corner of it, or a series of images collected over a network of space and time.
In a sense that is the premise underlying this handsome photobook which came to me, in contrast to the title, without any expectations at all. I knew little of Oxford apart from a general awareness of the University and all the academic weight that it carries. As to any specific historical or visual detail—either about the University or the city that surrounds it—my knowledge was minimal. What intrigued me about Arturo Soto’s A Certain Logic of Expectations was the idea of experiencing the city through the eyes of a Mexican studying at Oxford during the Brexit years. I suspected he might have an interesting angle on such a storied place. I was not wrong.
Born in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico in 1981, Arturo Soto earned an MA in Art History from University College London and an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York before completing his PhD in Fine Art at the University of Oxford. His fondness for the grittier side of urban landscapes developed early. His first photobook, In the Heat (2018) focuses on Panama, but eschews the travel brochure side of the country and turns its attention to “banal spaces that people rarely consider, partially because of their familiarity, but also because they contradict conservative notions of progress and economic growth.” The same social and aesthetic impulses guide his new work.
A journal in a shop window with the legend Start Where You Are on its cover is the perfect maxim for projects that blend photography with psychogeography. Instead of wishing to document faraway lands, photographers should consider examining their immediate surroundings first.
Oxford is a city with multiple realities. The Oxford Soto engages with through his camera lens, contains none of the esteemed features of the University. He talks about it, yes, but I have to admit that the mention of such architectural landmarks as the Radcliffe Camera, the Magdelan Tower or the Bridge of Sighs brought no immediate images to my mind. I had to google them to find out what they looked like and, even then, I would not have recognized or placed most of them before making a point of looking. Oxford, the University, exists as much as an idea as as a place. Yet I was captivated by, and remain much more interested in, the working class Oxford Soto’s images record—the brick buildings, boarded up shops, back alleys, and strangely vacant streets. They tell their own stories, but they also project a certain anonymity. (A selection of images from A Certain Logic of Expectations can be found on his website.)
Weaving a path of sorts between the two possible Oxford’s is the text. Memories, observations and anecdotes drawn from Soto’s time in the city are presented as discreet descriptive passages, with no connection to any particular image. He considers the dynamics that have formed Oxford as a city, and talks about some of the idiosyncrasies of the photographic endeavour. He records scenes and interactions he encounters on the streets and reflects on the student experience, recalling friends, romances and favourite watering holes. Some of his remembrances have a photographic quality of their own:
A friend and I spot a naked girl through a basement window on Rectory Road. She is sitting down on the bed with her back to us. The basil green sheets make me think of Modigliani, whom I associate with that color. The room is brightly lit, making it hard to understand why she has not drawn the curtains. My friend is equally fascinated by the incident, and we speculate about the situation for a while. She keeps referring to the girl as beautiful, even though we did not see her face.
Oxford, as Soto describes it, is a city constrained by its own history—a history that is actually confined to a very small geographic space. Beyond that, its ability to renew itself is limited. A distinct separation is maintained between “town” and “gown.” As a student, Soto has full access to the college he attends (but not the entire University). For residents of the city with no connection to that side of Oxford, the hallowed halls of the educational institution and the world it contains exist entirely outside their lived experience. Two solitudes.
Soto’s camera brings the otherwise unseen Oxford into focus; his crisp, clear images highlight its absolute ordinariness. To his eye, and given his own background, even its “dodgiest” neighbourhoods appear orderly. His prose passages and vignettes are precise, admittedly subjective and charged with a deadpan humour. It all came together when I learned (also on his website) that his artistic practice:
owes a great deal to the work of the French writer Georges Perec, whose fragmentary and often absurd projects offer a methodology for the study of the infraordinary, the term he coined to describe the nothingness that comprises the bulk of our lives. Perec highlighted the complexity of micro-events and banal spaces, exposing the partiality and selectivity of our attention and making us question why we grant significance to certain things while overlooking others. Perec’s writings provide a fitting analogy for documentary images, which give a realistic impression of the world while also connoting an authorial vision.
In the background throughout this project looms the tensions around Brexit. Soto is a careful observer, noting, for example, party signs pasted up in a window. Yet, as an outsider, without a vote or a particular stake in the matter, it is still impossible to remain entirely neutral. He recounts a friendship that dissolves when he learns of the other’s political leanings. There is inevitably a spark in the air that one senses when in a foreign country at a time of voting or campaigning that fuels an interest and a disconnect at once. It seeps into the memories you take away. There may be a level of discontent in the air, but as Soto reflects on returning to Mexico as his studies draw to a close, he knows he will miss the freedom and safety he enjoyed on the streets of Oxford. That comfort also seems to inform his photographs and his observations such that this Oxford, the one that defies a certain logic of expectations, is perhaps one that can only be seen by an outsider open to all its possibilities.
A Certain Logic of Expectations by Arturo Soto is published in a limited edition by The Eriskay Connection.
6 thoughts on “Exploring the other Oxford: A Certain Logic of Expectations by Arturo Soto”
Oh my, I’ve looked at the images on his website, and that certainly is a different Oxford to the one I know. I’ve only driven through it en route to Somerset to see The Spouse’s ancestral churchyards etc, but even that glimpse confirmed my ideas of it drawn from my reading. (Iris Murdoch, Evelyn Waugh etc).
Tourism England, of course, is like that. I never delude myself that I’ve seen ‘The Real #InsertCity’ of any of the places I’ve travelled to. I go to aesthetically pleasing places and enjoy it. It’s nice to have memories of beautiful places, even if they’re not ‘The Real #InsertCity’. They’re like the beautiful paintings in the galleries I go to. Part of my armoury against the ugliness that is all around us.
There’s a very interesting book called Mirror Sydney by Vanessa Berry (by https://anzlitlovers.com/2017/12/10/mirror-sydney-by-vanessa-berry/) where she is “a rebellious flaneur, presenting ragtag and piecemeal suburban Sydney, most often in dingy and abandoned places off the beaten track.” Not the Harbour City at all.
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The unfortunate truth is that it’s not just tourists who are offered a curated view of a city, for many residents its as if certain places don’t exist, and if they do they can be ignored.There’s a kind of civic cognitive dissonance at play in so many places. This book aims to challenge that. The scenes the photographer focuses in on are not shocking, rather they are exceptionally ordinary and that’s what is so surprising!
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Ah, yes, but the complacency of so many people is a different issue. Whether photojournalism can impact that, I don’t know. The examples I can think of, like that naked child running from napalm in Vietnam, had shock value. But we live in a more visual world now so maybe people will react to more ‘ordinary’ images.
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Sounds really interesting Joe. I’ve visited Oxford only once, I think, and that was staying with a friend at the Uni. I have a romantic thing about old Universities (probably from never having studied at one!) but I do know there is often quite a divide between Town and Gown. Sounds like this shows the non-glamorous side of the city!
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The photos definitely focus on the ordinariness of the town. Definitely an interesting and, in a way, a book not easily defined. It’s always nice to have a chance to read books that you might not encounter otherwise and share them!
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