Tom Hunter

Woman reading a Possession orderreprinted by kind permission of the artist Tom Hunter

Woman reading a Possession order, winner of the John Kobal Photographic Portrait Award 1998
reprinted by kind permission of the artist Tom Hunter

These past few weeks I have been wondering about how things start, how the seed of an idea finds the right conditions to germinate to find root and grow into a piece of work. Of late, I am beginning to think that mostly it’s about work. From a notion, start to work on the idea and see where it goes. Start to explore an idea, by both thinking about it and acting on it, perhaps even at the same time. See where it leads. See how it develops. Whilst the f464 club would struggle with not knowing where the end is, I am starting to believe that the journey into unknown territory is possibly more interesting and rewarding (hopefully) than the accomplishment of understanding and achieving a pre-visualized panorama.

I had little hesitation in requesting a place on the Tom Hunter talk; I had communicated with him nearly a year ago, culminating in this blog piece and, unfortunately, a meeting scheduled between us that was cancelled, where I had hoped to investigate his practice and gain an insight into how he goes about his work. I was quite disappointed at the time that the meeting didn’t take place, but on reflection I think that my appreciation of his work after hearing him during the study day event in Hackney, has probably served me better now, given the development in my vernacular of the medium to which I am still very much apprenticed to.

Hunter gave a hasty life story but lingered longer on his more contemporaneous work, he rattled through his biographic details leading up to his degree piece and then, how the work that he has become renowned for, had started. From his essays his tutor Kennard suggests a study of the Dutch painters in what is known as the ‘Golden Age of Dutch Painters’ which revealed Vermeer to Hunter and inspired the photographer to create a completely new body of work. The re-presentation of several of these Dutch masters’ works led to his winning of the John Kobal portrait prize (above) that largely launched his current trajectory as a ‘name’ in the world of ‘Art’ photography. A recent inclusion of a couple of prints to the permanent collection on MoMA in New York, seemingly sealing his fate as a recognised artist. Exhibitions in in various cities around the world are keeping his reputation alive, though as Hunter was clear to point out, this fame comes associated with the continued need to develop new work.

“I work ‘fucking hard” he informed us …”and it’s not easy, I work harder now than I’ve done before…”. “I’ve probably had 50 new ideas for work since Christmas..” There seems to be a constant pressure to perform, to delight the galleries, to delight the industry that seems to surround Hunter; he now has a number of assistants that he wasn’t exactly complimentary about, trappings it seems to me of the business that accompanies the rising of an artists’ reputation. I’m reminded of Struth bemoaning that he now has several ‘assistants’ that not only does he have to pay, but also to find work for; thereby increasing the price of his prints accordingly. I wonder how much Hunter’s prints cost now; he posted this on his facebook page “look what happens to the price of your book when it sells out!!!”

Hunter’s work has its roots in his local community of Hackney where he has lived for the most part of his life, in the documentation of the struggles of this district of North East London. Using the beauty of large format colour photography, natural light and a passionate belief in elevating the disenfranchised to a higher plain. Utilising the lingua franca of the advantaged to combat the march of capitalist encroachment, and by engaging with the instruments of power management Hunter has allowed the voice of that community to be heard. That Hunter was prepared to commune with the art establishment, for whatever reasons apart from those that enabled him to give oxygen to that normally suppressed minority, and swan with the likes Saatchi means that Hackney’s ‘ugliness’ is now finding an audience from places like Barcelona, Paris and now permanently on West 53rd, just a couple of blocks from Central Park. “Who’d have thought that of the kid who was ‘naff’ at school?” I paraphrase.

The Way Home reprinted by kind permission of the artist Tom Hunter

The Way Home
reprinted by kind permission of the artist Tom Hunter

I find it interesting in Hunter’s presentation to see some of the headlines that provided some of the inspiration for his “Living in Hell” series, not that I doubted their existence, but it added to the realism of the work. Hunter didn’t try and define documentary, rather saying that he did document the world around him, and that (photographic) labels weren’t an accurate description. This photographer makes images; he wants to make images that people can engage with, he appreciates that if people can engage with them then maybe the narrative that he is exploring might be able to be heard. Without engaging an audience there can be no chance to have a conversation, and this is perhaps where I have most of my concerns about the nudity in some of his images. Is the nakedness of young women there to attract attention in order that a conversation might take place? I want to think not, though I’m not fully convinced. The concern over Cranach’s predilection for sexually charged young women being aped using the same visual elements has me troubled. Cranach, I still think, painted these images for the singular purpose of aiding a singular pastime for the patrons who paid a lot of money for the purpose. Couldn’t Hunter find another subject, or another visual means to subvert Cranach’s onanistic patrons?

I asked him about the pinhole work that he enjoys so much and he suggested that he likes not only the aesthetic qualities, but also the way that the image seems to echo the way we actually view a subject. That the periphery of the image is in distortion as we view the core of the image is a desired effect, this helps the photographs that are presenting the ‘staged persences in, for example “Prayer Places” almost training the view to the centre piece in the image. That the view takes many minutes to form a latent image on the film substrate is another welcome attribute of the process “I can go and have a chat with the Imam whilst the exposure is being made…” indicating that not only is Hunter a part of the community but that he wants to continue to develop his connection with it.

St. Joseph's Hospital Chapelreprinted by kind permission of the artist Tom Hunter

St. Joseph’s Hospital Chapel
reprinted by kind permission of the artist Tom Hunter

I came away with several strong feelings about the talk and subsequent discussion with Tom Hunter. Firstly, that his conviction to the medium of photographer as a way of delivering his narrative was very strong. Also that he committed to applying himself to the process of work, the “Dublin bay” series for example suggested to me that it was started by a desire to test the new camera that he received as a gift, but that slowly (perhaps very slowly with this camera) it developed into a narrative that Hunter extracted from the that ‘work’ to record, to document in the snotgreen sea before him. The “Prayer Places”, the “Ghetto” and others that may have started as curiosities but have turned into valid bodies of work that express Hunter’s feelings for places that have been, and are still important to him – mainly in and around Hackney, mainly in and around the oppressed in his community, the beautified and objectified ugliness in an area that is in transition.

Sandycovereprinted by kind permission of the artist Tom Hunter

reprinted by kind permission of the artist Tom Hunter

Returning to the pressure of an artist who has been recognised, I wonder how he will cope with the continued need to perform. He mentioned that he has failed in advertising, not that he seemed overly bothered, and that he has been in Birmingham to do some work in completely unfamiliar territory. He has had limited time to both explore the area and for the assistants he has been trusting to ‘assist’ him, Hunter has had to ‘deliver’ product in perhaps a way that he isn’t used to. This pressure to perform might come easier to a commercial photographer who also has a private practice, but Hunter isn’t interested in the process of art as a means to make money per se – though I’m sure he accepts the trappings as perhaps we all might – but it has been about how to ‘make art’ that Hunter has got to where he is. I wonder whether he will change his practice to suit his new place.

A thoroughly inspiring event with an artist who provided an engaging and honest insight to his work and practice. I think some twenty-five students comprised the audience and there were a lot of questions to which Tom Hunter was generous is response. And apart from a couple of very minor technical hiccups the talk went extremely well. The post match team talk between the students and the accompanying tutor Sharon Boothroyd benefitted from the focus of the event. I would like to see more of these type of events. Interaction with and between students being something that most studying at the OCA don’t have that often and I think a sizeable number crave.

Tom Hunter’s work and essays can be found on his web-site

Keith Greenough on Tom Hunter


10 thoughts on “Tom Hunter

  1. Thank you for this John. I was very disappointed not to attend the event as I wasn’t very well, but you’ve provided a brilliant commentary! I’d never thought about the pressure on successful photographers – it’s not something that enters the head at our stage, is it?!

  2. John, agreeing with what Jills said above. It was a fab event and your article covers it really well, bringing to light many of the ‘concepts’ that were discussed during his presentation. I was one of the lucky ones and I get raving about it all evening! Really enjoyed it.

  3. Enjoyable reading John. I missed the bit about Hunter’s assistants. Like you, I think he treads a fine line regarding the use of nudity to put forward his message, so that one might question why people actually look at the images. However, his commitment to his area shines through.

    • Yes, he didn’t seem altogether happy with the assistants, we must remember to be very tolerant when we have them fawning over our whims and fancies when we are famous…….

  4. Interesting perspective John. I wonder if your concern about female nudity is a little overdone. If you look through his website there are just a handful of such images out of about 100 or so. In each case the image is referencing a classical art work. It is not a very significant aspect of his work in the way it was for Bill Brandt, Edward Weston and many other modernists.

  5. Not one to go on! Hunter uses nudity to bring to attention the use of oppressed and objectified women in art which is of course a very direct reflection of how women are still seen today let alone as they were in the ‘Golden age of Dutch painting. Brandt used the body, I think in a different way, he abstracted it and re-presented it. As for Weston, I struggle to see how he could be called a modernist. He took more nude (studies I think he euphemistically called them) than any other subject in his years of photography. His attitude toward women could be described as recidivist and not an enlightened modernist. Faced with a challenge to really have an open relationship with Tina Modotti for example, he ran home to a have a more faithless relationship with a faithfull women in Charis, whom he discarded when she started to show signs of ageing. Not a big fan as you can perhaps tell.
    I was inspired by Hunter’s talk and his description and of his practice, and maybe I’m making too much of his use of nudity. The web-site doesn’t contain all his work and “The Way Home” also has a wide selection, whereas the catalogue to the NG show has a rather higher population of them. It is the one concern I have in an otherwise highly regarded photographer from my perspective.

  6. Pingback: Tom Hunter in Hackney, London | Amano photographic studies

  7. Pingback: Heightened focus – Tom Hunter at the BIAD | John Umney - Documentary

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