Research notes – Tom Hunter

The following comments are made after looking at the book Tom Hunter: Living in Hell and Other Stories (1), as well as other photographs by Tom Hunter from his website (2).

Tom Hunter’s work is primarily centred in East London, specifically in Hackney, where the artist claims to have lived since the mid-1980s. He depicts his neighbourhood and illustrates stories and events that have happened around him. Hunter draws a lot of his aesthetics from classical paintings. His series “Persons Unknown” (link), which title derives from the way in which squatters in a property are addressed by a possession order, seems to have been inspired by Caspar Friedrich’s use of windows as a motif, given that most of the pictures either feature windows or have their characters illuminated through one. Some of the images in this series, which to the best of my understanding were all staged, are balanced and naturally illuminated in a classical way – see for instance “Woman Reading a Possession Order” (link) (after a picture by Johannes Vermeer) or “The Glass of Wine” (link) – , but in others the light is not as effective, detracting from what should be the main focus  – See for instance “The Campaigner” (link), where the subject is almost entirely on shadow and the harsh light coming through the windows falls almost exclusively over vegetables and kitchen wares next to a sink. Looking at these images, I am left wondering if the references to classical paintings serve an ulterior purpose or are just an aesthetic gimmick. In “Woman Reading a Possession Order”, the expression of the character holding the letter is passive, pensive, mimicking almost the same expression as shown in Vermeer’s original. We do not know exactly what Vermeer’s girl was reading, but the title of Hunter’s photographs indicates that what his character is reading is something very serious, potentially impacting her immediate livelihood. Moreover, where Vermeer was showing us a fruit bowl, Hunter has decided to include a baby, signalling that the woman in his picture is a mother, perhaps even a single mother, and that she is just reading an order to have her and her son evicted from their home. Given the seriousness of the circumstances, I found this girl to be too calm and the whole situation slightly incongruous. It could also be the case, which is perhaps a more plausible explanation, that Hunter was following Vermeer too closely in this case simply to highlight the commonality of these things, the differences between the disadvantaged who suffer setbacks on a daily basis and have grown a thick skin, and the privileged who may be surprised at these things happening.

The book referenced in this entry was published on the occasion of Hunter’s 2006 solo exhibition at the National Gallery, the only ever photographer to have had the honour, according to his website (3). Aside from an interesting essay by writer Tracy Chevalier (4), in which she creates plausible stories around many of Hunter’s tableaux photographs from the exhibition – and which form the series “Living in Hell and Other Stories” (5)(link), the book is largely devoted to celebrate, and almost exclusively focus, on the aesthetic link between Hunter’s photographs and classical paintings. In the preamble, then National Gallery Director Charles Saumarez Smith sets the tone for what will follow: “Tom Hunter’s photographs are relevant and important to the National Gallery as they demonstrate the ways in which modern imagery is so deeply – sometimes consciously and sometimes more subliminally – influenced by the compositional luggage of the past with its repertoire of idioms and effects.” (6). The analysis included in the book left me with a slightly bitter aftertaste, and it felt as if Hunter’s work, which is clearly intended to be social commentary, was being somewhat mollified by an excessive focus on its aesthetics. I am assuming that part of Hunter’s intention when framing his images in a classical way was to reach out to the outsiders (including myself as a spectator) in a language that they understood, while emphasizing the dignity and virtue of his subjects (77), but when the analysis just focuses on the language and sets the substance as an afterthought, the response gets stuck on the surface and art loses its point.

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(1) Chevalier, T., 2006. Tom Hunter: Living in Hell and Other Stories. National Gallery London.

(2) Tom Hunter – Artist. 2018. Tom Hunter – Artist. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.tomhunter.org/. [Accessed 09 June 2018].

(3) Info | Tom Hunter. 2018. Info | Tom Hunter. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.tomhunter.org/info/. [Accessed 09 June 2018].

(4) Chevalier, T. op cit. Pp. 9-18

(5) Living Hell and other Stories recreates events that took place in Hackney and that were reported in local newspaper Hackney Gazette.

(6) Chevalier, T. op cit. p. 8

(7) See ESSAY: Under the Influence | Tom Hunter. 2018. ESSAY: Under the Influence | Tom Hunter. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.tomhunter.org/essay-under-the-influence/. [Accessed 09 June 2018], where Hunter explains how Vermeer has influenced his work.

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