Tom Hunter / The Way Home
February 2013 Interviewed by Katy Barron
Tom Hunter recently met with Katy Barron to discuss Hunter’s newly published book The Way Home (Hatje Cantz, 2012) and his work within the recent National Gallery exhibition Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present. Below, an excerpt of their conversation transcribed for Photomonitor details the background to several of Hunter’s most recent series.
Katy Barron: Your new book includes images that I haven’t seen before, all of which are made using a pinhole camera. Can you explain your choice of the pinhole for these particular images of religious spaces and street markets in Hackney?
Tom Hunter: I suppose it’s just trying to create an atmosphere, and showing the opposite way of working, so you are just working very slowly and [the pinhole] collects rather than grabs. You can just put the pinhole down and it slowly absorbs the scene rather than grabbing and taking. I got a bored of ‘what lens have you got? How many megapixels have you got? How big’s your camera?’. This is just a lovely way of working with people as you have to get permission, you have to talk to people, to have dialogue. It absorbs and there isn’t anything fancy about it, it’s not about the product.
KB: The resulting image lacks the manic atmosphere [of the street market] and purifies it almost or distils it. They have a very painterly quality as the light and colour become extremely rich.
TH: I’m doing everything that you shouldn’t do and you’re told not to do as a photographer. Using the wrong type of film with the wrong type of lighting, doing overly long exposures for the film to cope with, not using the lens, not using the flash. If you read early books about photography they advise that you have to use the flash and particular film and filters and shorter exposures. Otherwise you get these strange hues and distortions around the edges.
KB: Presumably these are the effects that you are looking for in this work?
TH: Exactly – you don’t need any of those things. The image looks beautiful as it is. The irony is that this is how we see with our eye, and photography is made to try and escape all that, to make it very pure and this work is pure in a very different way.
KB: Are you being deliberately anarchic?
TH: Once you understand the rules of photography so well, through teaching and being part of it, you get bored of it. If you understand the rules they become very boring and then you are in a position to play with them and understand why they are there. Actually the rules are quite dull and when you break them you can do amazing things.
KB: To turn to your work that was recently in the National Gallery exhibition Seduced by Art. How far do you feel other photographers, apart from yourself, have made work that is so deliberately based upon paintings from the canon of Western art?
TH: All the great artists painted the Madonna and Child, the reclining nude etc from Leonardo to Picasso to Poussin, they all look back and use the same themes and the same pictures and make their own interpretations. For obvious reasons photography, especially in the 1960s with the advent of the 35mm cameras, tried to distance itself completely from the past. It was like a Communist revolution, stating ‘we don’t belong to the past and we have no relationship with it, and photography must be seen in its own right’. And they tried to sever the link, because photography in the 19th century was very much linked to painting, which they did very successfully. It came to a point in the 1990s when some practitioners became frustrated that photography could only be one way of looking at the world; 35mm hand-held. People began to question this and started looking back and re-interpreting photography so that it became more experimental.
KB: It seems to me that young photographers don’t position themselves within the history of art and don’t feel that they are part of a trajectory. I think that you do and are happy to use the past to inform the present in the creation of something very contemporary but few photographers are comfortable with that connection.
TH: There are a lot of photographers who are scared of the word ‘art’ or ‘artist’ and have taken up photography because it doesn’t have those pretentious connotations. There is an idea that art is un-masculine.
KB: But you are very happy to be associated with Art?
TH: Absolutely. I just see photography as another tool to express yourself and to represent the world around you. Artists have done it through cave painting etc and then the camera came along, then moving cameras came along, then video came along. To put photography in this small ghetto has always worried me. Photography to me is important. I love the medium, and it is unique in that it’s the only medium where everyone thinks it has a direct relationship to reality, an unfettered relationship. I believe that it has got an indexical link to reality in some respects but its always monitored and edited through the human mind and hand. Everyone thinks they can judge a photograph, take a picture, view a picture. You can take the best picture in the world as a five-year old kid. You can walk down the street, trip up, press a button and just in front of you there’s a policeman lying on top of someone with a knife in their throat. If the same person tried to accidentally make a sculpture or painting or to write about it, it would be very hard to do. So photography has some unique qualities, which I like to play around with, experiment with, think about.
KB: I wonder if Seduced by Art was an attempt by the National Gallery to engage a new audience with painting? One who would naturally dismiss the Old Masters as dull and not for them?
TH: Lots of people think the Old Masters are dull. When you go to the Gallery you’re not allowed to use your mobile phone, you can’t shout, kids aren’t allowed to run about – it becomes a very serious ordeal. Rather like going to a church where you have to bow to these great masters. When you look at something like a Caravaggio of someone being killed, the subject matter can get lost and the brushstrokes, colours or forms can take centre stage. You can forget that he [Caravaggio] killed. That this is a prostitute, that these people are starving to death. You can forget the context of the painting because of the way that it is situated. Whereas photography is often seen in magazines, it has a contemporary context to which people can easily relate. By bringing in contemporary work and issues to the National Gallery, a new context can be given to the old masters.
KB: Do you think that some of your subjects are dignified through being presented through the mirror of painting and are you happy for the parallels to be drawn so clearly?
TH: Yes, I want to give dignity to my subjects in the same way that the subjects of classical portrait painting were given dignity. But at the same time I am not trying to hide the reality of life. It is like a Brechtian device for me – show the stage and what you’re doing but you are still going to get lost in it. It is rather like going to the theatre where you can see the lights and the stage but its so absorbing that you forget about it but then you look up and remember that ‘this is just the theatre’ before becoming lost in it again. A lot of photography is a bit deceptive in the way that it pretends that it has no relationship to the past, that it is just mechanical reproduction and the photographer just happened to be there. There is some denial of photography as this true and honest instrument that walks on its own legs around town and takes pictures and the photographer doesn’t make any choices or edits or has any creative involvement at all.
KB: Finally, how did it feel for you to return to the National Gallery after your solo show there in 2006 – you have been on a long creative journey since then?
TH: Many things had changed for the better since 2006. I’ve done a lot of new work and been more adventurous – making films, pinhole work, commissions, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company etc. In some ways my National Gallery show was a confused time, it was very overwhelming and it took me a while to move on from it. Some of the images depicted negative aspects of life, the pictures were about headlines; murder, rape and attacks and it was hard hitting. Whereas the shows I’ve done recently haven’t had that huge notoriety, they have challenged me in ways and moved my work forwards. So it was great to go back to the National Gallery in a completely new context.
All images courtesy of Tom Hunter.