Cambridge Photo Exhibition Honors English Icons

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Travelers who love visiting the UK often do in large part because of those traditions that give England its special charm. Think afternoon tea. Creatively named neighborhood pubs and black cabs. Anything to do with the Queen and members of the royal family.

During my recent trip to the historically majestic university town of Cambridge, I was privileged to take in “Cambridge Faces: A Photographic Tribute to English Icons,” a student-produced and coordinated series of print and digital portraits exploring different aspects of British heritage. The project staged both a fund-raising, invitation-only Inaugural Gala at the university’s majestic Fitzwilliam Museum, called “Faces at the Fitz,” and a two-day open-to-the-public viewing of eye-opening portraits from six Cambridge student photographers. Staged at the home of the prestigious Cambridge Union Society, this second phase was titled “Faces at the Union.”

The “quintessentially English” icons featured in the photos—all of which were gorgeously and generously printed and framed by corporate donor Epson—included designs. Buildings. People. Fashion. Food.

“We thought English icons were a really interesting theme because it allowed us to take a classic theme and give it a fresh approach,” said Queens’ College Art Society President Thurstan Redding, who spent several months coordinating the project.But why are those of us from abroad so fascinated by these icons?

For one, says Redding, it’s because England “is very anchored in the past. They’ve got the Royal Family and centuries-old traditions they maintain.” And in 2012, “There’s the (Summer) Olympic Games, the Jubilee of the Queen … it’s a really vibrant country at this time.”

But this was no ordinary “student” show—FAR, far from it. This well-produced event was staged more professionally than SO many I’ve covered as a reporter—and that includes in several U.S. cities and some overseas. (And it’s earning impressive media coverage, including from the UK’s iconic celebrity magazine, Tatler.) Constantly flowing Champagne and a generous array of canapés were offered at the black-tie Gala 90 minutes before the “Cambridge Faces” opening ceremony kicked off. With the Fitzwilliam’s world-class galleries as a backdrop for these impressive photo portraits, guests couldn’t ask for a more elegant night out—especially with admission just 25 pounds (about $31.50 to $40).Hundreds of guests attendedthe recentGala, the majority of those students from Cambridge and other universities across Europe.

Each photographer selected and interpreted his or her own theme—and what an international group this is. For example, Eliska Haskovcova is from the Czech Republic; Chrystal Ding is Chinese but grew up in the UK. Redding—whose series portraits focused on the “Exploration of 20th Century British Style” from the 1920s through the 1990s—grew up in France.

“I looked at a picture (of Avedon’s) called ‘The Factory’ and though it was aesthetically pleasing. It was really inspiring,” said Redding of the legendary 1969 portrait that included Andy Warhol. For Redding’s multi-panel portraits—which he styled himself, down to selecting the era-appropriate garb worn by student and faculty “models”—American photo and portrait legend Richard Avedon “was the most central inspiration for the whole thing.”

Queens’ College Art Society organizers are still tallying the proceeds from both the Gala, sales of the photographic portraits (all have been sold, with some buyers purchasing the entire student set) and other donations. Two UK-based charities—the Affinity Project, a Cambridge-based student organization helping support an in-need secondary school in the town of Croydon, and the Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research—will equally share the profits.

Will there be a “Cambridge Faces” part deux for the Queens’ College Art Society? That call has yet to be made. But one thing’s for sure—these young photographers and event mavens certainly set the bar high for any Cambridge student event to come.

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About Maureen Jenkins

Maureen Jenkins is a food/travel writer and communications professional who's visited nearly 35 countries and territories, lived in Florence, Italy, and recently spent a year living in a charming village near Paris, France. The self-proclaimed 'urban travel girl' talks travel, food and wine – abroad and in Chicago – in "TCW Travel Connection.” Read more of her thoughts on living globally at UrbanTravelGirl.com.