A sharp eye for the classic pose


Photographer Tom Hunter’s remarkable work refers directly to classical art. However, it is far more than a homage, invested as it is with several layers of contemporary meaning, writes AIDAN DUNNE

IF ANY ONE image marked Tom Hunter’s arrival as an artist of note it was a photograph that eventually formed part of a series titled Persons Unknown.This particular work, made when he was preparing for his master’s degree show, is called Woman Reading a Possession Order. In it we see a young woman, in profile, standing facing a window and reading a letter. An infant lying on a richly coloured blanket occupies the foreground. The composition is closely based on the painting by Vermeer, A Girl Reading at an Open Window.

The piece is typical of Hunter’s approach in that he creates a photographic tableau that refers directly to a classical painting, but is invested with several layers of contemporary meaning rather than just being a pastiche. At the time, he was himself living in a squat and the woman was his next-door neighbour. He was trying to make an image that expressly contradicted the politically inspired propaganda of the time, which depicted squatters as inherently antisocial troublemakers.

One morning, letters arrived from the local council, addressed to “persons unknown”, telling them they were being evicted. Remarkably, his photograph attracted so much attention that the planned demolition of the houses they were occupying never went ahead. The scene is staged, but it’s also a historical document, dealing with real people and real issues, and pointing us towards historical resonances in art history. As Hunter notes, Vermeer and his contemporaries were among the first European artists to depict ordinary people rather than nobles, mythological figures or biblical characters.

The squat was in Hackney in London, where Hunter still lives. The borough has formed the substance of his work in one way or another since he began exhibiting, including his current show at Green on Red Gallery, Unheralded Stories. He is not a Londoner, but was born and grew up in a small Dorset village. As he observes, “Maybe I couldn’t quite cope with living in London, so I set about making a village of it. But that’s what we do: we re-create the world in our own neighbourhoods”. And that is what Unheralded Stories is about.

Hunter left school early and worked for several years – not that happily – as a farm labourer, for the Forestry Commission and eventually as a tree surgeon. He realised he loved photography when he brought a camera with him while working for the US Forestry Service in Puerto Rico for a year.

That spurred him to do an A-level and study photography at the London College of Printing, going on to complete his MA at the Royal College of Art.

Even as a student he produced extraordinarily accomplished work, not just in a technical sense but also in terms of conceptual coherence.

As with Woman Reading a Possession Order,time and again he has been motivated to visualise and articulate a sense of community and identity in response to negative press or political commentary. The title of his 1994 Ghettoseries, consisting of beautiful contextual portraits of fellow squatters in their homes in Hackney, derives from the Hackney Gazette’s description of their area as “a crime-ridden, derelict ghetto, a cancer . . .”

He has been consistently painterly in his approach. Not that he tries to imitate painterly effects in any way – he sees painting as being inherently abstracted. Rather, he is invariably attuned and responsive to the history of representation in western art, and his own relationship to it. He views the great historical and mythological themes of classical painting, not as something apart from, but as intrinsic to our lives, in Hackney as elsewhere.

In one series, Living in Hell and Other Stories,the sensational headlines and stories from the Hackney Gazetteprovide the subject matter for tableaux with references to a range of paintings, some of them iconic. Unheralded Stories extends this method. The stories are those of a number of individuals living in Hackney, painstakingly gathered – the involvement, the gathering, is very much part of Hunter’s process – and reimagined with reference to classical mythology and painting. Not so much with reference to, perhaps, as in the form of.

The show consists of paired images of, as Hunter puts it, “stages and players”. In one image we see a narrative scene; in its partner an empty communal interior.

Photographed with a pinhole camera, the latter are “spaces in which people meet, not commercial spaces. They’re community and parish halls, meeting rooms for immigrants, prayer rooms, those sort of interiors”. Each is significant in relation to its adjoining “players” image. “It’s as if in one image we see the drama; in the other the space in which it might be enacted,” he explains.

The dramas are all local, but they appropriate the wider physical and mythological world, making the village universal. One, Mole Man,involves a famous – or infamous – Hackney eccentric, William Lyttle, an immigrant Irish labourer whose labours took a distinctive turn. For decades he tunnelled beneath his house, creating a labyrinth that, as Hunter recalls it, led to traffic diversions and fears of major collapses when his subterranean excavations were discovered.

Even when he was retired to a residential institution, like the character in The Count of Monte Cristohe kept on tunnelling. Hunter links his story to Giordano’s 1666 painting, Fall of the Rebel Angels, and underground Hackney becomes Hades. The image of Lyttle in his tunnels is paired with a view of Stoke Newington Town Hall arranged for a tea dance.

In Death of the Party, two young women are depicted in a spare interior, the morning after the night before, evidently wiped out by the party of the title. Their poses are modelled on Caravaggio’s austere painting Death of the Virgin.

Another work features the daughter of friends who, Hunter noticed, “makes beautiful drawings of dragons and angels”. Hunter, drawing on Ingres’s painting of Roger rescuing Angelica in an episode from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, transposes her to a “forest” of hogweed stems in Hackney.

With Hunter, each picture really does tell a story, on several levels, and elaborates on the heterogeneous complexity of individuals and communities, prompting us to take the long, considered view. Unheralded Stories makes up an exceptionally rich body of work and a terrific exhibition.

Unheralded StoriesPhotographs by Tom Hunter. Green on Red Gallery, 26-28 Lombard Street, Dublin. Exhibition runs until March.