Artist Tom Hunter on photographing close to home

Artist Tom Hunter on photographing close to home

By Rachel Segal Hamilton IdeasTap 30/09/13

Tom Hunter is the only artist to have a solo photography exhibition at the National Gallery. His work has also been shown at the V&A, the White Cube and the Serpentine Gallery. Ahead of a group show at Tryon St Gallery, Tom talks to us about photographing friends and taking inspiration from art history...

Your work has often involved your friends as subjects. What should you keep in mind when photographing people you know?

You have a responsibility when you photograph anyone – it’s their image and not your plaything. If you take images of your friends and you take advantage of them – cast them in a bad light – that will come back to you. You can lose friends like that.

My work is all about giving dignity to my subjects, so I work to keep them involved in a dialogue. I keep to this working practice even when photographing strangers; there is little comeback, but this allows me to sleep soundly at night. 


Image © Tom Hunter

Image: After the Dragon from the series Life and Death in Hackney © Tom Hunter


What are the advantages of concentrating your artistic efforts closer to home, as you have with your long-term focus on Hackney?

The best thing about working locally is that you get under the skin of your subject. You’re not just scraping the surface and making predictable, stereotypical images.. Spending years with the same location opens up depths and dimensions that many people overlook. 

Your images frequently reference art history – either specific works or conventions of form. Why did you develop this approach?  

I love history, especially art history. By taking on strategies in art practice, I can make references to different times and places. Taking photography out of the everyday and into a different context makes the viewer think about contemporary life in a more dynamic and diverse way.  

By putting a squatter into a Vermeer pose [see image below], the current situation is given an historical context, which can lift the status of the squatter and make their plight become universal rather than just a tabloid headline. 


Image © Tom Hunter

Image: Woman Reading a Possession Order from the series Persons Unknown © Tom Hunter


Increasingly, photographers are exploring the line between fiction and documentary. What's the relationship between the two in your work? 

There has always been this tension in photography; it’s one of its inherent qualities. 

Photography is a lie, as soon as a photographer takes out his camera the situation changes but everyone believes in the truth of the photograph. When I create images I try to make the viewer realise the image is a construction by using devices like historical postures.

It’s the same way Brecht makes you aware of the stage while at the same time suspending your notions of disbelief in his plays. So in my photographs you are taken to a real place, but then this notion is turned on its head when you learn its reference. That’s an exciting tension.


Image © Tom Hunter

Image: Anchor and Hope from the series Unheralded Stories © Tom Hunter


How has your way of working changed since you started out?

Very little really – I'm a dinosaur, I still shoot on large format sheet film with a huge camera. I don't believe digital is as good at producing 5ft x 4ft photographs. It’s great for magazines and the internet but large scale photographic prints in a gallery, shot on large format film, still give the wow factor. My friends in the film industry still say 35mm film is still the best for lighting and mood, and digital is struggling behind.

As for developing projects, that’s still the same: work all the time, shoot all the time, things develop and breakthroughs are made out of mistakes and perseverance.

If you could go back and give your younger self some advice about becoming a photographer, what would it be?

Don't give up, keep working, believe in what you’re doing and stay focused – you’re in it for the long haul. 


Heritage Reinvented runs from 3 October to 22 November 2013 at Tryon St Gallery. 

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