Research notes – Hannah Starkey

The following notes are made after looking at the book Hannah Starkey: Photographs 1997-2007 (1), as well as photographs available online at the artist page in the Maureen Paley gallery (2) and the Tanya Bonakdar gallery (3). Starkey work primarily consists of staged photographs, involving mostly women as subjects.

In many cases, the characters in her photographs avoid direct contact with the camera, their faces obscured by lack of illumination (see for example Untitled – March 2008 (link)) , by obstacles being placed  between the subject and the camera (like in Untitled September 2008 (link)) or, in most other cases, by the subject looking away or giving her back to the camera (and the spectator), like in Untitled – September 2006 (link). In some cases, this does not really matter much because you can still see the characters faces through a reflection in a mirror (like in Untitled – May 1997 (link)), but in others, you are left with nothing or almost nothing in terms of faces, and this is one of the aspects of Starkey’s work that I find more interesting, how by showing less we are left with a sense of anxiety and mystery. Take for instance the case of June 2003 (link). In here, more than half of the frame is dominated by a large window panel (windows, mirrors and glass feature quite extensively in Starkey’s work) covered by a light, ineffective curtain in what appears to be a fruit theme. The light peering through the window illuminates the subject, a woman sitting in front of her dressing table, with her back to the camera and head down. Two table mirrors flank her, but we cannot see her reflection. All we see is more curtain, this time reflected in the mirrors but almost seamlessly blending with the original just behind. The woman is wearing a robe, with floral pattern, complimenting the pattern of the curtains. We do not know if she is sleeping or if she is crying, and our inability to connect with her face fills us with more questions than answers. Everything in the image is arranged in a particular spatial order, symmetrical along the main vertical axis which cuts the image in two halves. This contributes to a sense of order that is only broken by our inability to connect with the subject or understand what she is going through.

Starkey uses space and structures in a masterful way, enhancing tension and feelings of anxiety, the premonition of something bad imminently happening. I believe this is best exemplified by Untitled – September 2004 (link). This is a picture of a long, narrow corridor. At the end of it there is a desk with a computer screen and what appears to be a microscope, but could also be an apparatus for examining the eyes. In any case, the context is clearly medical. The walls of the corridor are very shiny and reflect the strong fluorescent light from the ceiling in blue hues. There appears to be an opening on the right hand side of the corridor (a medical cubicle, perhaps), but this is not very obvious and the overriding feeling is one of claustrophobia, an impossibility to escape. Then on the right hand side we can just catch a glimpse of the subject, barely reflected on the shiny blue walls. We can just see her silhouette. She could be a nurse, but also a patient or a doctor. We are left with the doubt. And this doubt together with the claustrophobia from the way the structures are framed completes the picture of anxiety that many of us feel when confronted with the possibility of misadventure, be it an adverse medical condition or any other unexpected turn of events.

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(1) Blazwick, I., 2007. Hannah Starkey: Photographs 1997-2007. 1st ed. Gottingen: Steidl.

(2) Maureen Paley | Hannah Starkey. 2018. Maureen Paley | Hannah Starkey. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.maureenpaley.com/artists/hannah-starkey?image=2. [Accessed 10 June 2018].

(3) exhibit-e.com. 2018. Hannah Starkey – Artists – Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.tanyabonakdargallery.com/artists/hannah-starkey/series-photography_4. [Accessed 10 June 2018].

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