Monday, 18 March 2013
Tom Hunter - study visit
I recently attended a talk by the photographer Tom Hunter at a gallery in Hackney. The day was organised by the OCA and the artist gave the students a glimpse into the artistic thought processes he used to make his work. He began by describing how he originally came to photography and talked about the life he led in the squats of Hackney and the people that he met and was influenced by. This was a time when the London borough was vastly under resourced and many empty buildings were left in disrepair. Hunter described the artistic and alternative community that flourished despite an attempt by the media to portray them as worthless and a burden on society. Hunter was living and studying as a photographer during this period and began to look to Fine Art painting that hung in prestigious galleries as a means to reference the lives of the people around him - an attempt to portray his reality rather than one imposed on his group by the media to further a political and ideological agenda.
Hunter's talk was slideshow based and we saw the juxtaposition of his photographs against the paintings that inspired them. It was interesting to see the references that he made even though I was unfamiliar with most of the paintings except Millais' Ophelia.
Tom Hunter is a lively character and the talk was very enjoyable. I came away thinking that photography projects are a bit like writing in that it is sometimes best to stick with a subject that you know really well - otherwise there is a risk of becoming out of your depth and losing authenticity in the project. The other point made during the chat session afterwards was that Hunter refuted the allegation often made to him that he should not be making aesthetic images of the people that surrounded him as this was morally wrong - that their plight (such as the homeless woman) was too serious to be dealt with in this way. Hunter's argument was that aesthetic images draw people in and in this way their subject's situation can be portrayed in a more subliminal way than say black and white documentary - and he intimated that documentary is not his style and he finds it a bit suspect. He talked quite a bit about "hit and run" or "grab and go" photographers like Martin Parr that arrive in a situation and take from it. This is in contrast to his own style of working as he is nearly always concerned with the environment around Hackney and he still lives just down the road. His other point was that he was trying to portray his subjects as beautiful in opposition to a media definition of them as worthless and ugly.
I am an admirer of Hunter's work and agree with a lot of what he had to say. I think that sometimes too many rules and objections are put onto the work of photographers with inaccurate claims of immorality being made without fully understanding the nature of the work. Whilst there are many valid arguments for a moral and ethical stance in photography I don't think the accusation that making serious and thought provoking work "beautiful" is morally wrong is always a valid point. A moral straightjacket on creativity is the last thing an artist needs. In Tom Hunter's case he is living and working with many of his subjects and from this perspective his point of view is an authentic and valid one.