Tom Hunter Interview

Anchor and Hope by Tom Hunter.

Tom Hunter’s photographs permit the viewer an instantaneous and unashamed pleasure in looking.  Then, once we are drawn in, they deliver a punch of meaningful content. These large scale prints are grounded in the eye-opening realities of life in East London but at the same time speak to another world; one of beauty, thought and celebration. It is this blend of documentary and art that is so fascinating.

Is art imitating life or life imitating art?

With Tom Hunter it is both.  Quite an achievement when working in a medium that is restricted to recording what was there.   The camera of course does not reinterpret the subject, the photographer’s job is to bring new perspectives to what is already in the world.  By drawing inspiration from significant painters and authors Tom brings together the world of fiction with a gritty reality that he witnesses in his own neighbourhood. Reinterpreting real life events and newspaper captions in his series Living in Hell and other stories he constructs narratives that surpass the lifespan of the news story and become universal points of reference.  Stories have always been powerful because most of them hold elements of truth. It is this link to reality that photography does better than any other medium and what brings excitement for Tom as he continues to play with the realities he creates and encounters.

Dr Tom Hunter was born in Dorset and became passionate about photography as a teenager before doing a BA at London College of Printing followed by an MA at the Royal College of Art.  He is a Professor of Photography at London College of Communication and continues his practice based in London.  He is the only person to have a photography show at the National Gallery, London and is represented by galleries in Dublin, New York and L.A.  His work has also been exhibited in the Saatchi Gallery, White Cube and Serpentine.

SB:  When did Hackney first become your muse?  What is it about it that keeps you intrigued? 

TH:  As soon as I moved to Hackney in the late 80’s I became fascinated by the area. There are always new things to discover here; the people, the landscape, the architecture, the amazing diversity of cultures. The East End has always been the first stop for all types of immigrants making it an incredibly fluid place; new faces, new ideas, new food and music all make for a heady cocktail.

‘Reality and fiction’ and ‘photography and painting’ are phrases often cited in reference to your work.  What is important to you about combining these elements?

I love the way photography is seen as the truth but that truth can be so easily manipulated. Reality and documentary are at the core of my practice as it is in photography but I find more truth in fiction. So it’s getting the balance between reality and truth I find most exciting and illuminating. Too much fiction and the real history and lives are lost, too much dry reality and no one wants to hear their stories. Thomas Hardy got all the facts and wove them together in such a beautiful way, that the life of the peasants in Dorset became alive and the fiction becomes a reality. This is how I strive to work.

You recently gave a talk at Somerset House addressing, amongst other issues, ‘What makes a photograph an art object’?  Could you summarise your answer for us?  And why do you think so many people have to ask?

For me art can be anything in terms of material or medium. But the object for me has to transport the viewer to a different place, take the viewer out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. It should make us pause and think about our lives and the lives of others and makes us reconsider what we take for granted. For me the artist questions the world and produces art that enables the viewer to take time out of the everyday and think about our place within the universe. The longer the hold on the viewer by the object, the greater the object’s strength as art.

Social networking and the online dissemination of images has become the norm for today’s young artists.  What impact do you think this will have / is having on photography?

Photography can now been viewed by a much larger audience which can open many new doors to showcasing your work in new arenas. However with so much work out there, your work can be easily lost in the ether. So making work that matters and stands out is as important as it has ever been. The priority should always be on the work itself, the dissemination of the work is always secondary and can only have an impact if the work has an impact itself.

Were there equivalents you had to negotiate when you were starting out?

Submitting your work to magazines and entering competitions were the best ways of getting your work out into the public arena. This does however rely upon editors and judges to value your work in order to showcase your images to the wider public. The Internet has circumnavigated these bastions of taste so now everyone can get their images out there but at the cost of oversaturating the public and undermining the value of the images themselves.

What advice would you give emerging artists?

Believe in what you do, do the very best you can and keep at it no matter the cost or hardship.  It’s a passion not a career.

What hopes do you have for photography’s future?

Photography can be a mirror on our own lives, reliving our struggles, our dreams and our fears. Photography is a medium of the people, which connects with the lives of nearly everyone in one form or another. Its future is our future.