A unique, diaristic examination of life in Oxford, England

From “A Certain Logic of Expectations,” published by the Eriskay Connection, 2022. (Arturo Soto)

“Fighting the temptation to photograph the obvious charms of Oxford is harder than it seems, like the view of Lincoln College’s Library from Turl Street or Magdalen’s Tower from the Botanical Gardens. The hardest one to resist is the streetlamp near the Bridge of Sighs because it reminds me of the work of Charles Marville.” — Arturo Soto.

Arturo Soto’s book, “A Certain Logic of Expectations,” (the Eriskay Connection, 2022) is an interesting amalgamation of thoughts set alongside photos of the historic city of Oxford, England. Reading through them is like being invited into an ongoing dialogue he is having with himself and includes everything from thoughts on photography to books, music, art.

It reminds me very much of my own experience studying at Oxford, when I took part in a study abroad program as an undergraduate. All those years ago, it was a haven for my internal development. I had many conversations with myself exploring grandiose ideas while studying Shakespeare and James Joyce. Being there, and studying at the school, was rather like being in a comfortable intellectual bubble.

Soto’s book also explores one of the more unique aspects of life in Oxford, the dichotomy between “town and gown” a.k.a. the denizens of academia who live among the fabled architectural jewels most of the world would be familiar with versus the “townies” or the regular Oxford residents.

It’s interesting that this still exists. I experienced it too while living there, even if only for a short time. Although I did not live “in college,” I lived out in a village called Headington in a shared house with other students studying abroad that was located very close to the local football stadium for Oxford United.

I vividly remember taking a bus into town to the High Street. Once, I was surprised that the bus driver had dread locks. That was a surprising juxtaposition to the sporadic sightings of people walking down the streets wearing academic robes.

Soto’s book avoids lingering on any of the charming architecture of the city, instead focusing on the more prosaic vistas of regular people’s homes and shops. At one point in the book, he remarks that people he showed the pictures to said they could have been taken anywhere. He connects that thought to the fact that he also told them he hadn’t traveled much throughout England to which they replied that he hadn’t really seen the country at all. The irony between the two statements is not unnoticed!

If I’m being honest, even though I spent a term studying at Oxford, I can’t really discover anything familiar in the photos, which I think is the point. I do, however, find familiarity in Soto’s written vignettes — especially when describing some of the city’s landmarks like the High Street or, say, the Ashmolean.

And I think that is one reason, in the end, I do find this book very interesting. It is simultaneously an internal and external exercise that doesn’t necessarily jibe with each other, not unlike the very divisions between the city’s unique phenomenon of the town versus the gown.

Soto does employ a visual device to make the demarcation between the town and gown crowds more evident by using a square format in photographs of the academic side of the town and a rectangular format for the others. Still, the book is not meant to be a paean to the romantic notions of Oxford.

It’s worth reading the publisher’s description of the book to glean a deeper understanding of the work:

“A Certain Logic of Expectations proposes a counter-narrative of the British city of Oxford that resists the visual imperatives of its ancient university. For the past five years, Mexican photographer Arturo Soto explored the longstanding division between town and gown through a careful selection of spaces and objects. His visual narrative is loosely structured around the following thematic strands: notions of home and homelessness, the looming presence of Brexit, the conflicted local economy, and the diversity of the city’s neighborhoods. In short texts Soto describes his experience of the city, and his fascination with its history and myths. The work challenges an easy judgment on Oxford and its established narratives of tradition, influence, and power. In his photography as well as his written observations, Soto proves that his pen is as sharp as his eye.”

There is a banality to the work that I think may be a little deceptive, echoed in that phrase “they could have been take anywhere.” That is fascinating to me. And, in the end, it is the combination of the collection of Soto’s meandering thoughts in with these photographs “from anywhere” that magnifies the work and makes it more complex and nuanced than it at first appears.

You can find out more about the book, and buy it, here