Tom Hunter in Hackney, London

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Tom Hunter, photographer, talking to OCA graduate students

Tom Hunter is a photographer I have been aware of since seeing his seeing his photograph “Woman Reading a Possession order” which is an overt reference to a painting by Vermeer, part of the Dutch School. The chance to hear him talking seemed too good an opportunity to miss and so early one morning, I left at dawn to catch a train to London. It was surprisingly easy to reach the Bootstrap Gallery, a 3 month old project a short walk away from Dalston Overground station.

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The converted building where the workshop was held

The OCA crowd were already in evidence and Sharon Boothroyd, a tutor from the OCA let me in through the security doors. I needed to visit the Gents and following a sign went up to the top of the building in search of one. At the top was a door which lead onto a landscaped garden rooftop; from another building nearby I heard the whistle of a Mynah bird. This was obviously a wrong turning but it was an interesting spectacle.

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the rooftop of the building in which the exhibition was held

Sharon, OCA tutor for the day, has written the following on her Photoparley blog about Tom Hunter …

Tom Hunter’s photographs permit the viewer an instantaneous and unashamed pleasure in looking.  Then, once we are drawn in, they deliver a punch of meaningful content. These large scale prints are grounded in the eye-opening realities of life in East London but at the same time speak to another world; one of beauty, thought and celebration. It is this blend of documentary and art that is so fascinating.

Not long after I found myself in a studio waiting for Tom Hunter to appear. There were a couple of dozen of OCA students. When Tom Hunter started his talk, he asked if we were “A” level students and it was left for me to pipe up, “No, undergraduates!” though it was difficult to notice many if any people under 40. Three cheers for adult education!

Tom started by saying that as a child, his father had a darkroom in the garden, and it was here he experienced the magic moment of seeing a photograph he had taken of his sister materialise before his eyes. It was however not until he was 23 that he picked up a camera and start taking photographs again. Initially, he took pictures of people coming to his stall in a part of Hackney where he lived; usually, markets are not easy to make photographs in but since he was sitting and snapping people who were coming to him, it worked well and encouraged him to do a course at LCP (London College of Printing).

As he photographed his surroundings, he became interested in local issues at a time when Hackney was a very different place to the one it is now; he found it a warm and welcoming place, a vibrant community. It was considered to be almost a ghetto at the time (with ruins of Second World War bombing) yet for Tom it was a “living” place with a recognisable community even if many people were living in squats. He made a model of his house into which he inserted 5by4 transparency photographs and this was appreciated not just by friends but officially and the piece now belongs to The Museum of London. The area has experienced massive regeneration since those days of the late 80’s and a house that was once offered by the council for £5000 recently went for £2.4 million; Tom does not consider himself as a successful businessman since he might have cashed in on this!

The acceptance of his work lead him to make the career decision to be an artist and he began to photograph his friends and neighbours many of whom were considered at the time to be anti-social elements of society, dispossessed people.

His studies brought him into contact with such work as Dorothy Lange’s “Migrant Mother’, a Madonna and Child image, that speaks of the poverty that existed in the U.S. during the Depression era of the 1930’s. He also came across artists such as Vermeer of the Golden Age of Dutch Painting. At that time, Holland was defending itself from the Spanish and so while the map in one Vermeer painting might appear an interesting but tame reference, at the time such maps were illegal owing to the Spanish influence which claimed Holland as it’s own so this image was actually provocative. Yet what inspired Tom about Vermeer was the way he elevated the status of common and ordinary people. He has been doing the same thing through his own work. A work by Vermeer called The Art of Painting, has been transformed by Tom into a contemporary “The Art of Squatting”.

Another of his recreations has been of John Everett Millias’ “Ophelia” (1852) which is apparently the most popular art print in the UK. His own photograph is made in similar circumstances in Hackney – his Ophelia is a prone figure lying in the water surrounded by weeds while an industrial landscape looms in the background.

Some photographs he made of friends on old industrial estates ended up being exhibited by the MOMA in New York! Mimicking fine art paintings often provides inspiration for this kind of work.

Thomas Hardy has been a source of inspiration and fascination. Hardy’s heart wrenching stories of life in Dorset, the county where he grew up, encouraged him to do as Hardy did and collect local real-life stories from local newspapers. From these he constructed photographs. Tom is quite open about staging photographs in which he seeks to embody the issues of the day. He wants to seduce his audience and change people’s perceptions.

He has faced opposition from gallery owners who find his imaging too real, grotesque even and that it is morally wrong to make beautiful works of art out of a tragedy. Tom points out that they are no worse that many of the scenes portrayed in classic works of art.

One of body work came about when he visited Dublin in Ireland and is based on some lines of Ulysses by James Joyce; he photographed old Victorian bathing stations that were dotted around Dublin Bay. For this he used a specially fashioned 5by4 pinhole camera.

Another of his projects is of places of worship in East London and documents the different kinds of faith that exist in the area.

FIne Art works often help to give a narrative.

Recent work includes making a film of his locality from old people’s stories and memories of the area.

After he has finished speaking, we have a chance to put questions to Tom and I am the first to jump in with a question that concerns me about his work and which is partly provoked by his reference to fine art (often not obvious to the viewer) in a medium that often seeks to go beyond the limitations of the past; he sounds me out almost immediately and makes me aware of the kind of the preconceptions I have started to build up around photography. The following is from an interview with Katy Barron on Photomonitor …

For obvious reasons photography, especially in the 1960s with the advent of the 35mm cameras, tried to distance itself completely from the past. It was like a Communist revolution, stating ‘we don’t belong to the past and we have no relationship with it, and photography must be seen in its own right’. And they tried to sever the link, because photography in the 19th century was very much linked to painting, which they did very successfully. It came to a point in the 1990s when some practitioners became frustrated that photography could only be one way of looking at the world; 35mm hand-held. People began to question this and started looking back and re-interpreting photography so that it became more experimental.

Tom started to reference fine art by happenstance rather than intentionally. He was photographing inside using a large format camera which resulted in long exposures, all of which resulted in softer images and light that were reminiscent of the Dutch School paintings. He considers photography a bit disingenuous in the way it claims to be divorced from art when in fact everything from cave painting to sculpture and painting is part of it’s DNA.

Another point he makes is that if an artist such as Caravaggio was at work today, he would not be painting but more likely to be doing something like video.

Tom is a picture maker. He does not have great technical virtuosity and prefers simple equipment such as a pinhole camera. He thinks that digital photography has robbed photography of much of it’s innocence.

He has to work hard to hold down his job in photography. He finds himself concerned about whether new work will actually be accepted.

Coming from a later generation of photographers than Martin Parr, Tom has rebelled against what he considers to be “smash and grab” photography; he takes his time, communicates with his subjects. He does not answer to the “in your face” photographer stereotype or the techie. Like Art, photography needs to develop from one generation to the next.

It is important to be able to communicate with people if one wants to gain access to places. Need to be direct, straightforward and honest, able to explain oneself and what one is doing. When he gets refused, he sees it as an invitation to a discussion.

Tom Hunter's photographs on show

Tom Hunter’s photographs on show

He wants to involve people, the whole of society, in a debate in issues that are of importance. This has lead to him being dismissed as political (by Saatchi for instance who did however later take him on) as a kind of Billy Bragg of photography.

In fact, he is searching for a voice through photography.

Where many see ugliness, he sees beauty; he is attracted to beauty like the PreRaphaelites were but does not think it has conform to certain conditions.

The relationship between photography and reality fascinates him. As he says in an interview on Photoparley …

I love the way photography is seen as the truth but that truth can be so easily manipulated. Reality and documentary are at the core of my practice as it is in photography but I find more truth in fiction. So it’s getting the balance between reality and truth I find most exciting and illuminating. Too much fiction and the real history and lives are lost, too much dry reality and no one wants to hear their stories. Thomas Hardy got all the facts and wove them together in such a beautiful way, that the life of the peasants in Dorset became alive and the fiction becomes a reality. This is how I strive to work.

After the talk, we went to a cafe next door and chatted awhile. It takes time though for something like this to sink in and it was later in the day that I wrote it up in the cafe of The Photographers Gallery.

downstairs at The Photographers Gallery

downstairs at The Photographers Gallery

OThe OCA blog of the event by Sharon is here while the pre-event blog is here

Other students blogs are by Shelley Holland John Umney

4 thoughts on “Tom Hunter in Hackney, London

  1. Amano, I enjoyed your write-up which I value immensely as I do not have the opportunity to attend these study days. Additionally, I love your rooftop. There are so many contrasts in it of new and old, tidy and messy. Had the grass been real, it may have substituted for the gents!!!!

  2. Pingback: Documentary, performance and fictions -Tom Hunter – Think Global, Act Local – Jan's Foray into Documentary

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