There is a lot to admire in this book and some questions, but first the good-stuff. The quality of the printed matter is exemplary, I can compare quite a few of the prints against the National Gallery exhibition catalogue “Living in Hell and other stories” for which I have a copy – the NG edition is much ‘contrastier’ than this Hatje Cantz release and the former’s limitations are revealed by the softer renditions of the latter.
Hunter provides an introduction to the book that ends with a paean to Vermeer, the inspiration that has led this photographer from relative obscurity to a ‘name’. Hunter describes how, like the seventeenth century Dutch master, he too strives to use his practice to elevate people, any people, through art; as Vermeer engaged with ‘ordinary’ people and placed them in the bastions of high art, so Hunter seems to want to habituate his ‘ordinary’ subjects in similarly ‘high places’; democratizing through the shutter instead of the brush.
Vermeer, we are reminded in Hunter’s text, didn’t leave very much for art historians to work with other than the paintings, he left very few notes or thoughts by which we, today, could discern the motives of composition. Hunter isn’t afraid to relay his thoughts and provides it comprehensively in what is the most lucid writing in the book; there are two additional pieces, one by Michael Rosen and another by Geoff Dyer, Hunter’s thoughts provide an interesting accompaniment to the imagery, which at times seem to bounce around a trifle as it seeks to portray an autobiographical journey from school flop to a renowned and award winning photographic artist.
The prints are, as I have said, very impressive, but I have a few questions that I am struggling with. Hunter appears to quite like the pin-hole camera, a good deal of the images depicted in this compendium are created via this particular technology – Ridley Road Market, Prayer Places, Dublin Bay, a chapter with no name after Punch and Judy, Holly Street Voids (second chapter?), Travellers (second chapter?), Public Conveniences and then some more at the end of Unheralded Stories. Perhaps half the images in the whole collection are in this form, as we learn from the text, a hand built pin-hole camera. I’m not sure what this image portrayal mechanism serves. Pin-hole exposures takes a long time, seconds, often minutes and, as a consequence, there is movement in the frame. It also distorts the view the edge and the image corruption is quite marked in some images but less so in others. The camera was a gift from one of his tutors – Paul Smith – and one which “..gave me the inspiration and fortitude to return to Hackney and continue with my life’s work”. P9. I quite like the visual impact of pin-hole, and for that matter zone-plate cameras, but I am unsure about the volume of this work in this tome. I fully appreciate that this may well be down to my lack of visual vernacular, but “Seapoint” in the Irish Sea and “The Hackney Town Hall Chambers” do not sit comfortably together to my mind – connected as they are by similar visual corruption as it tends to attempt to connect them contextually – again in my mind – where they do not appear to have anything else to bind them. The Dublin Bay series were the weakest set for me, but I fully appreciate that they may be included as they might have been a “Damascus” moment for Hunter, if the pin-hole story is to be believed, as an episode of this auto biographical journey.
I’ll need to re-read Rosen’s piece as couldn’t fathom it’s inclusion nor it’s purpose and the normally lucid Dyer is quite dense in his piece “Endlands” where, I think, he tries to provide an overlay of contextual narrative to the images chosen, I presume, by Hunter. Dyer’s piece doesn’t appear to be a eulogy, nor a means by which this reader could find coherence from the prose he provides and I wonder what purpose is served by it’s inclusion. Hunter alone provides this clarity of purpose, his prose is clear and sharp about what it is he is trying to convey and depict. I have written about his work in my previous course here and the politicization of the pieces in, for example, “Persons Unknown” can be traced back to the early work of “Brick Lane” – indeed the first image in the book and this is something that I can see ‘clearly’, and works very well for this viewer. “Life and Death in Hackney” is another trouble for me. In “The Bus Girl” are those rolling hills and distant mountains really in the People’s Republic of Hackney? Are those bathers in “After the Dragon” also paying congestion charges on those large vans? I don’t think so either. I need to wonder more deeply perhaps.
I enjoy Hunter’s work in the main, and this auto biographical work is hopefully, an early statement of intent for further work to continue and there is much to enjoy about this book which will keep me viewing for a while to come.