Art and Documentary: Tom Hunter in Conversation

Art and Documentary: Tom Hunter in Conversation

Tom Hunter is a renowned British photographer known for his evocative and meticulously staged images that draw inspiration from classical paintings. His work often explores themes of urban life, community and social issues, particularly within his local neighbourhood of Hackney, London. Hunter’s photographs are characterised by their narrative depth and attention to detail, frequently depicting contemporary scenes that echo historic art traditions. He gained significant recognition for the Living in Hell and Other Stories series, which reinterpreted Vermeer’s compositions to highlight modern social issues. Hunter’s work has been exhibited widely, including prestigious venues such as the National Gallery, London, affirming his status as a significant figure in contemporary photography. We caught up with Tom to talk about his forthcoming exhibitions and the 25th anniversary of his seminal series Life and Death in Hackney. He is represented by Purdy Hicks Gallery, London and Marine Contemporary, Los Angeles.

A: What initially drew you to photography, and how did your journey as a photographer begin?
My dad was a keen photographer who built a darkroom in the backyard. The journey of going through its dark, twisting corridor, and emerging into the red light, was one of discovery and mystery. I was totally captivated by the light being projected through the negative onto the paper. The process of putting the paper into the chemicals, swishing the tray around and watching the magic happen – as the image appeared though the liquid – was as spellbinding to me as a young boy as it is today.

A: Who are some of the artists or photographers that have influenced and shaped your work?
Nan Goldin for the way she reflected her friends, city and lifestyle, never turning away from the harsh realities of life. Her subjects included sex, drugs and, ultimately, the HIV/AIDS epidemic that ravaged New York in the 1980s. Then there’s Sally Mann, who made her family the centre of her art. She restaged the everyday moments of her children’s lives and framed them to create evocative tableaux. This encouraged viewers’ imaginations to run riot. The combination of Goldin’s snapshot aesthetic and subjects, with Mann’s beautiful restaging, has set the tone for my work.

A: Your work often focuses on Hackney. What is it about Hackney that captivates you?
I’ve lived in Hackney for most of my life. I started hanging out there in the 1970s when my best friend moved there before me in the mid-1980s. It felt wild and anarchic, a place with multiple layers and an incredible mixture of people from all over the world. In the 1980s there was an abandonment of inner-city environments, with whole streets left empty. Warehouses, factories, cinemas and stations were all deserted. I started squatting houses with hundreds of others, and the area become our playground. Old cinemas hosted squat raves that went on for days at a time. Abandoned railway lines became sites on which to park up our live-in vehicles. We took our lifestyle – a blend of rave, free partying and festivals – on the road, around the country and out to Europe. These people made their homes – and lives – in the ruins of Margaret Thatcher’s post-industrial inner-cities. They became my life and the subjects of my art.

A: It has been nearly 25 years since your seminal series Life and Death in Hackney, 1999 – 2001. Can you tell us about the inspiration and process behind it? What message were you hoping to convey?
I wanted to paint a landscape of Hackney that captured its beauty and countered the cliches. The place had been described as an ugly wasteland that needed redeveloping, and so I wanted to show the way nature and people had reclaimed the wasteland. Weeds had sprung up through the cracks in the concrete in a beautiful way. looked back on the Pre-Raphaelite artists and how they had woven narratives into their art. They took the notion of beauty and gave it an English makeover. I based all my works on Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the most obvious being John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1851-1852), the woman drowning in the water from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In my version, The Way Home, my friend floats in the River Lea after falling off her bicycle on the way home from an all-night illegal rave in an abandoned warehouse. Each of my works recreates the stories of people I lived with in squats, or partied with in empty industrial warehouses. The beauty I depict shows weeds instead of flowers, the unemployed and the squatters, the wastelands where the businesses have been deserted. The message: we are the flowers in your dustbin.

A: Has the series changed meaning as time marches on? If so, in what way do you think it’s different?
Hackney has changed so much in this time. Big money has moved in, with the Olympics and the growth of the City of London. It’s now illegal to squat, and homelessness has soared in London and the UK as a whole. All the industrial buildings have been converted into luxury apartments and the raves and free parties have been stopped or put in expensive bars and clubs with bouncers on the doors. The playground has been ripped up. One of my works, After the Party, shows an abandoned railway line looking towards the city. There is just one tower block on the skyline. Now, the Overground takes office workers to the city and so the skyline has been transformed. The city has eaten everything in its path and shot up into the air – a celebration of money and wealth for the few, like a mushroom springing out of the shit. Now my images are a record of a time lost forever, where people could live almost for free. Artists, musicians and creatives could experiment with alternative ways of living and find their way. People lived without the burden of debt and so students could study without working full time jobs. This opened up endless possibilities.

A: Much of your photography has a strong narrative element. How do you approach storytelling through your images, and what techniques do you use to create these narratives?
The narratives are very important. The stories I tell are of the everyday; they are stories you hear in the pub or at parties, where your friends recount their lives with laughter or tears. These tales are usually lost in time, but I wanted to hold onto and share them. I believe everyone’s lives and histories – not just those of the rich and famous – are important and need to be celebrated and documented. That is why I printed these images as 4ft x 5ft prints. It gives them a grandeur you would expect from visiting a national gallery, where you can immerse yourself in the drama, empathise with the subjects and imagine a whole scenario being played out in front of your eyes. It’s like going into the cinema to see a film, but you are only given one frame in the sequence. The viewer can explore the whole narrative using their imagination.

A: Hackney has undergone significant changes over the years. How has this affected your work?
Yes, Hackney has gone through huge changes. The abandoned buildings have nearly all been rebuilt or pulled down, the gaps have been filled in and different people have moved into the new luxury apartments. But, with all the new money that has come in, little has been given to the poor or needy. Hackney still has a huge amount of poverty and homelessness. Social housing – or the lack of it – is a huge problem, with soaring rents and house prices which are unaffordable to everyone except the super-rich. These are the people who are falling through the cracks in the system and whose stories need to be told.

A: Your work straddles the line between documentary realism and artistic interpretation. How do you navigate this balance, and what challenges do you face in maintaining it?
Documentary realism is an artistic construct with rules and aesthetic values. My work investigates these rules and values. I was told social documentary photography needs to be in black and white, shot from the hip and not be constructed. But to do this you still need to construct your images; it is not an objective approach or one that is or free from art history. I want to make the viewer aware of this and not hide behind notions of truth and objectivity, which photography can never embody. The artist always makes the choice of how to frame the subject and how they are portrayed. I love mixing up these ideas. It’s like going to the cinema and suspending your disbelief. On one level, I’m capturing the real world. On another, I’m creating a new reality which lives somewhere between the now and then. Bertolt Brecht (1889-1956) talks a lot about this in theatre, letting the audience into the drama whilst letting them know that it is a construct. We must be aware of who is building our worldview and why they want to show us the world as they do. I use these notions of documentary and art to tell the stories I need to tell.

A: As a photographer documenting real people and places, how do you address the ethical considerations of your work, particularly regarding the privacy and dignity of your subjects?
It is important to work with your subjects: to let them know what you are doing and where the work is going. None of my work is taken without the subjects’ consent and approval. I work in collaboration with people. In the Life and Death in Hackney series, all the subjects are my friends and neighbours. We discussed how to make the images together, what they would wear, how they would pose, where we would make the image. Then we reviewed the images together. This means they are proud of the work we made and we can celebrate it at exhibition openings. We had years of people taking photos of squatters and travellers and labelling us as “undesirable” in the tabloid press. I wanted to change that narrative and give a sense of pride and dignity to our community. It was great to show Life and Death in Hackney at The Grey Gallery in Hackney this month, bringing the work back to where it was made and getting us all together to celebrate. Life and Death in Hackney has been shown all over the world, including at the National Gallery Washington, USA; the National Galleries of Sweden, Poland, Norway, Finland and Spain; as well as the National Gallery London and the V&A in the UK. It was very important to bring it home to Hackney, where it all started.

A: What are you currently working on, and are there any themes or areas you’re excited to explore?
I’ve just curated a group show at the Hackney Museum, Hackney at Home, A Community Photography 1970-Today. It’s on until the 15 June. It has been interesting to bring my photographic heroes together. So many amazing artists have worked in Hackney over the decades, creating such brilliant bodies of work. These include Dennis Morris, who took photos at the local youth clubs in the 1970s before he went off on tour with Bob Marley as a 15-year schoolboy. There’s also Colin O’Brien’s amazing Travellers’ Children on London Fields; Rachel Whiteread’s tower block demolition series; Sarah Ainsley’s women at work in East London; the Hackney Flashers, who campaigned for child nurseries; and Syd Sheldon’s work with Rock Against Racism. I’m trying to get a book published because there’s so much to celebrate here.

I’m still making work and I’m off to Glastonbury in a few weeks to carry on with projects there. This year I’m working with Critical Waste, who clean up the festival as everyone else parties. It’s great to live in a caravan again for a couple of weeks and catch up with the people I used to travel with across Europe putting on Technivals and free parties. I hope to put a book together, but it might take a few more years. I’m also working on a landscape series, travelling around the country looking at power generation. As always, I’m making work in Hackney. Community gardens are interesting me currently, as is social housing.

At Home in Hackney, A Community Photographed 1970-Today, featuring The Holly Street Model by Tom Hunter, is on display until the 15 June 2024, at the Hackney Museum, London.

Namedropper opens on the 15 June 2024 for a year and features Hunter’s work at the Museum of Old and New Art, MONA, Tasmania, Australia.

Dalkeith Photo 2024 runs from 8 September until 6 October 2024. It features a number of Hunter works and takes place at Dalkeith House, Dalkeith, Scotland.

Words: Anna Müller

Image Credits:
1. Persons Unknown, Woman Reading Possession Order, 1997, Tom Hunter
2. The Way Home, 2000, Tom Hunter
3. Thoughts of Life and Death, Life and Death in Hackney, Tom Hunter
4. Persons Unknown, The Glass of Wine, Tom Hunter
5. Death of Coltelli, 2009, Tom Hunter
6. Persons Unknown, Girl Writtng Affidavit, Tom Hunter
7. Persons Unknown, The Art of Squatting, Tom Hunter