Tom Hunter in conversation with Carmela Tafaro – 19th February 2016
One of the best parts of attending Christie’s Ed is the access you have to privileged resources – and people. The following interview was part of this amazing educational journey. Never stop dreaming. Never stop achieving.
Enjoy the interview 🙂
Tom Hunter’s photographs capture the people and places of his local community in Hackney, East London. Born in Dorset in 1965, he studied at the Royal College of Printing and was the first photographer to have a solo show at London’s National Gallery. His practice is as political as it is meticulously composed; it toys with the tradition of old masters such as Vermeer and the Pre-Raphaelites (Persons Unknown, 1998, and Life & Death in Hackney respectively) and captures with acute sensitivity the zeitgeist of the 1990s and life in London at that time. His subjects are family and friends, people he lives with and his East End neighbourhood.
Empathy is at the heart of Hunter’s photography: there is a remarkable humanity in the way these people and their places are portrayed; a deep sense of dignity rendered through many little details and photographic techniques. For example, Woman Reading Possession Order (1998), arguably Hunter’s best-known work, borrows the composition and the sumptuous colours from Vermeer’s A Girl Reading At An Open Window. Like Vermeer, Hunter portrays everyday scenes that give his subjects – ordinary people – a quiet nobility. The 17th century Golden Age of Dutch painting has had a deep impact on Hunter’s practice, especially in the way they dealt with the people: not kings, queens and generals, but milkmaids and other subjects busy in daily activities, captured with tenderness and compassion. Adopting this classic pictorial style for squatters and travellers, Hunter elevates their status and gives them a visible place within society.
At the same time reviving and reinventing the Modernist concern of the relationship between the individual and society, Hunter’s works are both championing politics and beauty, whilst remaining politically aware in a non-documentary way.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
CT: Let’s start with your practice: how do you capture the people and places in your picture?
TH: I think it is a negotiation, a conversation with the people. I start off with the basics: I do ten pictures and with each taking of a photograph, little things change. So I normally do a Polaroid to begin with, then I take that and it’s a sort basic pose of where I wanted it to be within the room, the situation or the landscape. This gives me a rough idea on how they fit into that.
The first thing is to set them up in the situation. I then make a couple of photographs and try to see whether there is harmony between them and their surroundings – only then I start taking the pictures. You do notice that people take a while to relax, so the first pictures are always still and static and tense, and then you talk to them, suggesting maybe to drop the hand slightly, to turn the face slightly, and then you do another picture and then hopefully they relax more, they start fitting in the surroundings more and finally they drop their preconceived ideas of how they should look. Everyone thinks that they will look good in photographs in a particular way, as when they take selfies, so you have to try to break that down. Also, it’s the tiny little things that make all the difference: just a movement of the head, a slight drop of the chin, tiny movement of the eye, slight movement with the hair, the change of direction of a finger, a drop of the shoulders: it’s tiny little movements that can make it look relaxed and natural or tense and awkward. So it’s just trying to find the right balance.
This is why I see it as a conversation. So rather than taking lots of pictures and hoping something turns out, it’s more of a pace of slowly shifting, moving and relaxing into a situation where at some point – suddenly – it all comes together. They sit right and that feels ok, but that can take a while. And that’s probably why I don’t use models really: models have this preconceived ideas of what they think they should look like and it’s much easier for me to use people who aren’t being photographed so much.
CT: How do you find the right balance between staging/posing versus capturing reality?
TH: The balance is what I find most interesting: the friction between “is it staged or is it documentary”? I love documentary photography and I love staged photography, but I find the latter too unbelievable, as it becomes a bit too fantastical. The notion that a photograph can be real is so important, as when you look at the girl in The Way Home, and you start asking yourself “was she really in the water”? It is an industrial estate, there are trains going past, there are weeds: it is real. It is like going to the theatre: Brecht taught us that when you are in the theatre, you are suspended in disbelief. When the actors are talking to you, you are completely caught up in that moment. But at the same time you let yourself go a bit and notice that there are lights on the stage. So I love that element that you look at the picture and you go: “Wow there is a girl in the canal and it’s real!” – but actually she is not in the canal, it is not real, she is not there: it’s just a picture.
I work with a small format camera and I love to play with the suspense of what is real and what is fiction. Photography is great with that, as it makes everyone believe that it is real, when in fact it is not. When you bring a camera and take it out, everything changes around you and it is not documentary photography anymore.
CT: Amongst your works, which one is your favourite and why?
TH: I guess it changes with time, as everything is so caught up with memories. Photography is such an organic part of my life, it feels so natural, so easy. Perhaps the Travellers Series is my favourite: it was such an intense part of my life. I was about 28 or 29 years old back then, I was living in a double-decker bus travelling around Europe and I was going into other people’s vehicles to take pictures of them. I remember the people, the drugs, the parties, whatever it is. This series is a celebration of life, the life I was living at that time and when I look at them, they bring back a lot of memories, some happy, some sad and some distressing as well. They bring back a whole world, a life that now seems really far away.
CT: Which artist, painter or photographer, has influenced you most?
TH: I guess in a way they all did. When I was studying at the Royal College of Printing, at the end of every day I was in the library looking at all the great photography books – you absorb them all. Paul Strand, Dorothea Lange and all the American photographers were the best in documenting their country during the 1920s up until the 1980s. That great tradition of American documentary photography was all inspiring. Then you get to Nan Golding and all things shift. Before her, the photographers stand outside and look in and document what is going on in the world around them. Suddenly – for me – it all shifts with Nan Golding, as she is on the inside and she is looking at herself, at her friends, the society, the drugs, the gay culture, the transvestites: that’s a big turning point in photography. Also people like Sally Man
had a huge influence on me. And then it all goes back to art history. I became very interested in old master painters and the way they depicted their times – Vermeer, Caravaggio, Raphael – lots of people.
CT: Looking at galleries who have represented you in the past, I see a lot blue- chip profiles – White Cube, Saatchi, etc. – Don’t you think there is an evident discrepancy between what you portray in your photographs, that is people rejecting a capitalist lifestyle, and the fancy lifestyle of Mayfair those galleries represent?
TH: Obviously being involved with commercial galleries is not what I really intended. When I started off, the first piece I made – the model of the street – it was because I did not want to put pretty pictures on the wall, I did not want to be going in a commercial space. So I thought the model would be the perfect way of expressing the area and the situation: I thought it would be perfect for a museum. I though it would not be sellable, as I really wanted to avoid the commercialization of art and of my work. Interestingly, commercial galleries came to me and they wanted to sell my work. So it is a big contradiction that I am making works about housing, people becoming homeless, eviction, contemporary modern days struggle within society, and people see that as a commodity and make money with it.
I realized though that if you don’t use these institutions, then it means you don’t have a voice within society. So I thought – someone described it as a ‘Trojan horse’ philosophy – that you don’t change anything from the outside if you are not involved. But if you get to be inside the system, then you also get to change things. Being represented by galleries like White Cube has allowed my work to be sold and to get out there and in museums, which means that people get to see my works for free and I get to talk about these things and raise a debate, engage them. So I found it really useful. If I hadn’t found that, my work would still be in my studio and this would have been a pointless exercise. But it took me a while to work out that contradiction.
The conversation went on in Hunter’s studio in Hackney for about one hour. I could see how everything in the neatly kept space had a designated place. It felt almost as if he is collecting relics about humanity and modern society. The last thing he tells me is a piece of advice that I find apt and applicable to anyone – not just (young) photographers. “Money, fame, all those things aren’t important: the most important thing is carrying on with your life and do whatever you like to do. And for me it is creating works of art that connect with people, that talks about society and talk about its problems or making a critical context – that’s important to me. And money has nothing to do with being happy, and you are very deluded if you think that it has. It helps, but it won’t make you happy”.