Today we had a talk from Tom Hunter about some of his work. Having left school at fifteen with no qualifications to work as a manual labourer, he later enrolled on an A-Level photography course to continue his education. He produced his first body of work based on images of his second hand ‘jumble sale’ stall in Hackney and the customers that came up to it. He then went on to study at London College of Printing, where he continued to make images of his local community in Hackney. At that time Hackney was thought of as a place where no one would want to live, so Tom answered that with his photography by showing his neighbourhood in a better light. He made and photographed a scale model of his street, which was covered by ‘Time Out’ magazine.
After college Tom spent some time living and travelling on a double-decker bus whilst photographing the positive side of this lifestyle. He made a series of portraits of squatters and travellers that he met. When he returned to London he created a series of images based on an eviction notice addressed to “unknown”. He wanted to show humanity as he had recently been inspired by Dorothea Lang’s work and artists work that he had seen from Holland.
His first commissioned work was a series of portraits of residents of a tower block that was due to be torn down, titled ‘Factory built homes’. He exhibited the work on the 19th floor of the tower block to bring the viewers into an experience of the lifestyle he was depicting. Saatchi Gallery also showed this commission of Toms.
Tom continued to work with the subject of his photographs being the unattractive which he tried to make extraordinary. Pre-Raphaelites inspired him to work with a narrative, which he began to do to make his images feel authentic and have a connection for the viewer. For example one of his landscapes shows a bus burning out on one side and countryside of the other like heaven and hell. Another image of bathers in the river is reminiscent of Greek mythology.
The National Portrait Gallery showed some of Tom’s work in 2005/2006 of portraits he took of people featured in local newspapers with their stories of suffering in their poor living conditions. There was one of a woman left to live in a flat covered in cockroaches, and another of an attack in the local park. Some were so upsetting that they had to be presented with a warning, but Tom felt these portraits needed to be seen.
Tom made a slightly different body of work when he visited Ireland where he made images of Victorian bathing places around Dublin harbour using a pin-hole camera. To him going into the water in this way signified being born.
When he returned to Hackney he began to photograph communal places such as churches, mosques, community centres, cinemas and any architecture that could be seen to celebrate community pride. Following on from this he produced a series on local shopkeepers for the Victoria & Albert museum.
‘Home for Heroes’ was Tom’s work shown by the Serpentine Gallery, which showed his fascination for changing culture and community once more. This time three local residents gave their stories of what it was like to live on the estate at the time of the Queen’s jubilee. One image ‘The moral man of Hackney’ was of a man who tunnelled out of his house.
More recently Tom has worked for The Royal Shakespeare Company making images of Hackney based on the transformations of ‘A mid summer nights dream’. For example the fairies in the play were likened to the salsa dancers of Hackney in his Shakespeare inspired images.
Finally Tom showed us a quick glimpse of his latest commission to photograph ‘Punch & Judy’ shows around England ready for the 350th anniversary of the traditional seaside show.
Round Table Discussion
In an open discussion with Tom he talked about how he got started working as a photographer after college. He discovered how easy it was to become forgotten in the industry when he took time out from producing work to go travelling, so advises us to continuously produce work and show it. For him he got back into this habit when he returned from travelling to do an M.A. and also explained how keeping in touch with the network of contacts that he made whilst studying can help get your name known. He told us to enter competitions and aim for good publicising of any competitions or commissions because in his experience one body of work leads to another, as did one of him commissions as late as sixteen years later. He also recommended residencies as a good opportunity to progress from working in a university environment to self directed work. When working by himself Tom admits photography can be an isolating practice so he encourages himself to produce work by being pro-active and booking a studio or assistant that he will have to attend to.
When asked if he still gets his inspiration from his community now, he said he does because he likes the idea that everyone is from somewhere. We tend to take our local towns for granted but within them there are so many stories to be found. Tom has learnt a lot from his commercial work and commissions, but also makes sure he pursues his own personal work at the same time. He says that although some people argue that commissions control the photographer, he has never found this to be a problem because his focus is on how the work is produced (in his artistic style) not just what the work is about.
Finally he offered us some advise for presenting our final work at university. He advised us to consider the decisions that we make for presenting, taking into account the size and layout of the space we are exhibiting in.
After the discussion I spoke to Tom about him being Dyslexic. He told me that although he is not diagnosed he gets frustrated whilst studying, but channels this into a drive to produce more images. He agrees with my belief that dyslexia can give photographers a visual advantage because of the way they see things.