Custodians by Joanna Vestey is a collection of photographs focusing on familiar Oxford locations with the people who keep everything ticking over.
Vestey's previous works have included photographs of the Dragon School and its pupils, snapshots of Havana and an ongoing collection of sibling portraits. With her first book, Custodians, she turns her attention to Oxford's grand buildings and their guardians. The book itself is elegant and modern in its design, with its clean font and tactile cover, making it an attractive addition to any bookcase.
The subjects photographed, who often go unnoticed by the visitors of the institutions, are not the focus of these pictures. They avoid the gaze of the camera and are instead preoccupied by their surroundings, becoming absorbed into the background, allowing the spaces to take centre stage while they quietly stand guard. Some, like the High Sheriff of Oxfordshire Anthony J Stratton, seem to be part of the furniture while others, like Dr Norma Aubertine-Potter, create a contemporary contrast with their historic surroundings. One of Vestey's aims was to investigate the relationship between the watchperson and the space; the subjects are deliberately shrunk, showing their insignificance when compared with the places they work. Another was to explore how multiple time periods can be displayed in a single snapshot. The concepts are interesting and raise further questions about the ownership of the space (who owes whom?), duty and legacy.
My favourite photographs from the book are of the Revd. Professor William Whyte in the Dons Room, St John's and Professor Paul Smith, Director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Whyte is facing away from the camera, gazing out of the window while the daylight which streams through the glass gives him a divine glow - very fitting for a reverend! In contrast, Smith stands facing the models and remains of pre-historic and present day creatures while the repairs and renovations of the museum take place around him. He is fixed in the present while the past and future are in flux around him.
Although I enjoyed the collection, I think Vestey might have missed a trick by not including the voices of those pictured. The words of these custodians wouldn't necessarily detract from Vestey's aims. If anything, those who have been captured could have been asked about their feelings towards the place they guard and their own sense of purpose and duty which I imagine would have given more insight and increased the prestige of the buildings.
Ultimately, this is a very aesthetically pleasing book which explores the magnificence of Oxford's most impressive buildings but it perhaps lacks the emotional connection which would have made it fantastic.