OCA Level 3: Body of Work/Contextual Studies

Tom Hunter

See: Documentary exercise 3-10: Imaginary Documents

Living in Hell, from the series ‘Living in Hell and Other Stories’ (2003-4) ©Tom Hunter (Reproduced with permission)

I have admired the work of Tom Hunter for some time, and was glad to be able to attend an artists talk organised by Bolton University via the Redeye photography network. Tom presented a chronological overview of his practice and spoke passionately about the way he uses photography to connect with people. His work is often based in his local community of Hackney, with themes of politics, representation and what images mean being recurring concerns. He is interested in how art can change society and in capturing the humanity, beauty and dignity of his collaborators while also showing reality, warts and all. His work is often made with a large format camera with composition and lighting inspired by art history – a conscious rejection of the notion that documentary photographs should have an aesthetic of gritty black and white. This staging means that the audience is clear that the images are constructed while there is also an integrity inherent in them that makes the viewer both accept and question the relationship between photography and truth – his aim is for us to be aware that images are never innocent.

Girl Reading a Possession Order, from the series ‘Persons Unknown’ (1997) ©Tom Hunter (Reproduced with permission)

In an essay broadcast on Radio 3 (transcript here), Hunter gives an eloquent account of how his series Persons Unknown was influenced by the paintings of Vermeer, an artist who gave such incredible attention to ordinary events that the people and scenes represented were lifted into the extraordinary:

"for me Vermeer was a painter of the people, a revolutionary artist who, by use of realism and social commentary, elevates ordinary folk to a higher status…I wanted to present my friends, neighbours, lovers and myself to the world in a similar way. People I knew at the time were expecting me to produce the usual stock of black and white images of the victims of society, squatters and travellers, taking drugs and fighting bailiffs; exotic but alien figures from an unimaginable lifestyle, which could be marvelled at but never understood. But instead the images I made took direct reference from Vermeer's compositions, from his use of light, colour and calm contemplation. From this understanding I composed and rendered my photographic work 'Woman Reading a Possession Order', which took as its starting point, Vermeer's 'A girl reading a letter at an open window'
my reworking shows a girl reading her eviction order. She is given dignity, light, beauty and space, to tell her own story in her own time. The girl in the photograph is shown in a very intimate moment in her struggle with eviction. But we can all identify with her and her suffering, so this becomes a universal moment." (Hunter, 2011)
After the Party, from the series ‘Life and Death in Hackney’ (1999-2001) ©Tom Hunter (Reproduced with permission)

The empathy Hunter has for the people he photographs is what enables the viewer to identify with people and circumstances that they most likely have no direct knowledge. The mixture of reality and construction has the effect of drawing us in – although the photographs are clearly carefully and deliberately composed they are also completely believable. The comment that Hunter rejected showing “exotic but alien figures from an unimaginable lifestyle” particularly resonates with me – I am increasingly of the view that it is the integrity of the photographer and respect for the people they photograph that makes the difference – it is so much easier to ‘take’ a photograph, rather than ‘make’ one.

Anchor and Hope, from the series ‘Unheralded Stories’ (2008-9) ©Tom Hunter (Reproduced with permission)

In Living in Hell and Other StoriesHunter takes inspiration from lurid headlines in The Hackney Gazette. (An approach also used by the author Thomas Hardy from whom Hunter gained the inspiration for this concept.) Charles Saumarez Smith makes the assessment that “These photographs are not works of reportage, but of convenient fiction.” (Hunter, 2006: 8) Tracy Chevalier makes this explanation about why the series succeeds:

"Part of their power is being local. Played out on a national or global stage, such stories are distant; we respond to them intellectually rather than emotionally. When, however, the focus has been aimed at the familiar - on the street we walk down, in the buildings we visit, amongst the people we know - we feel much more personally involved.
Perhaps we read the stories simply out of surprise that such things can happen in what seems om the day-to-day surface of it a calm, stable, even monotonous world. Everyday life is full of small, familiar moments strung together that repeat themselves over and over. We eat, we breathe, we walk, we sit, we talk, we sleep. How peculiar when something outside of that mantra erupts; it shakes the placid surface of daily life. That, whether we admit it or not, is thrilling." (Hunter, 2006: 10-12)
The Way Home, from the series ‘Life and Death in Hackney’ (1999-2001) ©Tom Hunter (Reproduced with permission)


The Mole Man, from the series ‘Unheralded Stories’ (2008-9) ©Tom Hunter (Reproduced with permission)


Adams, T. (2005) The Face is Familiar… The Observer, 11th December 2005. At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2005/dec/11/art (accessed 7th March 2021)

Birch, T. (2012) Tom Hunter: Website Essay. At: http://www.tomhunter.org/website-essay/(accessed 7th March 2021)

Dyer, G. (2021) ‘Tom Hunter: The Persistence of Elegy.’ In: See/Saw: Looking at Photographs.Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd. pp. 212-215

Hunter, T. (2006) Living in Hell and Other Stories. London: National Gallery Company Limited.

Hunter, T. (2011) Under the Influence. At: http://www.tomhunter.org/essay-under-the-influence/(accessed 7th March 2021)

Hunter, T. (2012) The Way Home. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag.

Hunter, T. (2014) Acid Flashback: traveller photographs that relive 90s rave culture. At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/photography-blog/2014/feb/27/traveller-photographs-90s-rave-culture (accessed 7th March 2021)

Pulver, A. (2009) Photographer Tom Hunter’s best shot. The Guardian, 4th November 2009. At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/nov/04/photography-tom-hunter-best-shot(accessed 7th March 2020)

Smyth, D. (2010) Think global, act local. British Journal of Photography, August 2010. Available at: http://www.tomhunter.org/think-global-act-local/(accessed 7th May 2018)

Smyth, D. (2018) Tom Hunter’s personal odyssey. 1854 Photography. At: https://www.1854.photography/2018/06/tom-hunters-personal-odyssey/ (accessed 7th March 2021)

1 Comment

  1. Simon Chirgwin

    I think your point about making v. taking is really important – Hunter didn’t pop up with a large format camera in the girl’s (woman’s) house at the moment when she first opened her eviction notice and ‘capture’ anything; it’s a recreation, but no less ‘documentary’ for that…

    (On a lighter note, four years before Hunter made ‘Anchor and Hope’, I walked over the marshes on my 40th birthday and had the first pint of my fifth decade in the pub, before going on to have a Turkish meal (a yogurtlu adana, probably) on the border between Daltson and Stoke Newington. This is, of course, not the only reason why I like the picture…)

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