Researching the work of Tom Hunter, I came across this quote by Tracy Chevalier from her essay ‘Making an Art Out of Telling Stories’ from the catalogue accompanying Hunter’s series Living in Hell and Other Stories:
“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: 12)
These words perfectly encapsulate what makes Hunter’s series, in which he recreates scenes suggested by lurid and sensational headlines he came across in his local paper The Hackney Gazette – the banality of the everyday and familiar transformed momentarily.
Hunter, T. (2006) Living in Hell and Other Stories. London: National Gallery Company Limited.
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.
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)
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.
In Living in Hell and Other Stories, Hunter 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)