Tom Hunter‘s photography is all centred around Hackney in London. His images document ordinary lives, of people living in an area that has been marginalised and left to rot in post-industrial Britain. Since the 90’s Hunter has been shooting pictures of his friends, people living in squats, vast estates, running small shops and getting on with life as best they can in a blighted and economically deprived area of the City. It is a social commentary, a love letter to a place on the brink of decay. However, what makes his images more than a photo documentary is his use of art history to capture a contemporary state of mind.
Throughout his work Hunter has used painters such as Vermeer, Caravaggio, Millais, Wyeth, Delacroix, Velázquez, Waterhouse and Ingres to inform his pictures and even though they are not faithful reproductions of these famous paintings they do, nonetheless, reinvent the classic gestures and symbols in poignantly contemporary settings.
Take for example ‘Woman Reading a Possession Order’ which quite obviously plays with the sense of domesticity found in Vermeer’s original by photographing a squatter and her child. The connection between titles, the symmetry of forms, the light and the elements that Hunter chooses to include or exclude all contribute to these brilliantly re-interpreted classic paintings. Here’s what he has to say about his process:
It is this mixing of cultures, architectures, people and histories that has so captivated me and held me in the arms of Hackney. Every building has a thousand tales to tell and in this book I’ve tried to tell a few. Whilst my subject has always been Hackney the influences behind my art practice are found in the work of Johannes Vermeer, the Pre-Raphaelites and latterly a whole raft of art historical paintings. This came as a complete surprise to me as a young upstart striving for social justice in a squat in Hackney. While looking for a radical approach to my art I found revolutionary artists in the most traditional of art forms.
Since Vermeer I have taken many influences from art historical paintings and the lives of the artists, investigating how these figures have recorded, described and given narratives to their environments, lives and subjects. I have not been interested in trying to replicate the art from a historical context but rather reinvestigate, understand and reinterpret what has happened before. This works for me as an artist in contextualising my work, giving it multiple layers and asking the classical and contemporary viewer alike to question art in its relationship to society.
In my series ‘Life and Death in Hackney’ these strands of practice enabled me to paint a landscape, creating a melancholic beauty out of the post-industrial decay where the wild buddleia and sub-cultural inhabitants took root and bloomed. This maligned and somewhat abandoned area had become the epicentre of the new warehouse rave scene of the early 90’s. During this time these old print factories, warehouses and workshops became the playground of a disenchanted generation, taking the DIY culture from the free festival scene and adapting it to the urban wastelands. This Venice of the East End, with its canals, rivers and waterways, made a labyrinth of pleasure gardens and pavilions in which thousands of explorers travelled through a heady mixture of music and drug induced trances.