'The Way Home,' a new book from Tom Hunter (b. 1965, UK), is a collection of several photographic series which were taken in the London borough of Hackney, where Hunter lives. Spanning roughly the last 25 years, and including both documentary photography and staged art, the work is characterized by an imitation of the 17th century Dutch painter Vermeer’s use of light.
As in Vermeer's paintings, Hunter’s subjects 'float' in exactly the right spot of light, and look almost regal, with their straight backs and colourful clothing. They are a bit like Vermeer’s subjects, Hunter hopes. As he writes in his introduction, “Let's try to lift the people in our art, whatever the art form, and however the people.”
Yet, while in Vermeer’s paintings, the subjects' ennobled poses seem natural, in Hunter's work they are somewhat more contrived. In paying homage to famous paintings like Wyeth's Christina's World and Everett Millais' Ophelia, Hunter's photographs become theatrical interpretations of his ideal. It’s easy to imagine the photographer asking the models to move "one millimetre to the right" or lift an arm up "just a little bit more."
The resulting stiffness creates a tension, and it is very well possible that Hunter is deliberately provoking his audience with constriction. In his imitation of Ophelia, for example, although many details of the painting are recreated precisely - the position of the body in the water, the plants around it and the flowers in the water - above the ditch in which Ophelia is floating, there is also a small strip of twentieth-century houses. Hunter is searching for the fringes, both in the border of the picture and the outskirts of society, and he uses them to comment on a sense of feeling at home and the steadiness of that feeling that some have come expect.
As a traveller and squatter, Hunter documented people's provisional, mobile, messy and romantic homes, with a sharp eye for composition. The subjects themselves are often squatters, or other people at risk of being evicted at any time. When Hunter portrays a squatter's surroundings as still and perfect and beautiful, then we, as his audience, understand the threat that such an eviction poses to the tranquillity.
Though the book documents many places of Hackney, from places of prayer to sex clubs, the series that best achieves Hunter’s ambition of elevating people in his art is Holly Street (1997-1998).
Taken on commission for a London organisation, in order to archive the neighbourhood, Holly Street documents different people and families in their living rooms. In every photo, the camera is positioned in the identically shaped rooms in exactly the same way: facing a wall and giving a little view into the hallway next to it. This gives the rooms a cubicle-like uniformity, though the variety in wall paper is stunning. The people look into the camera but, contrary to some of his other photos which direct the viewer's way of looking, for example by posing the model in the right spot of light, the Holly Street series leaves room for viewers to discover things for themselves. Little details become visible: a wrinkle in the carpet, a stain on the wall paper, a curtain rail on the floor that still has to be put up. In other words, the little annoying but recognisable things that people grow used to, and come to know as home.
But Hunter is not trying to make you feel at home. Right after this series, the book shows Holly Street Voids: similar rooms, photographed again from exactly the same angle, but now they are empty. Empty toilet paper rolls on the floor, loose doors in the middle of the room, and even bird shit. Although the book is called 'The Way Home,' the title is as mocking as the photographs are. Hunter's photographs keep you on guard. If you think you see a home or human connection, you'll realise that this is really only temporary.
The Way Home is available for sale by its publisher Hatje Cantz
Reviewed by Nora Uitterlinden