Tom Hunter – Living in Hell

More bitchin’… (originally posted on the FAD blog)

I went to see Tom Hunter‘s exhibition of photographs Living in Hell and Other Stories at the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield this weekend.

I’d seen this show before at the National Gallery in London (Hunter is apparently the first photographer to have a solo show there). At the time I was impressed by some of the ideas, the compositions, and the lighting in the works, but not that happy with other technical aspects of the photos. A great many of them seemed slightly soft, mainly because of movement during the long exposures but also the focus seemed a bit out here-and-there (admittedly two metre wide prints can be quite unforgiving, but still…). Also I wasn’t sure that he’d best managed the large dynamic range of some of the pictures (from white-out halos around streetlights to hidden darknesses in the shadows).

Seeing the show for a second time, I was even more disappointed. So many aspects of Hunter’s work seemed not quite right. I wondered whether the many imperfections might be deliberate, but I’m sure this is not the case.

As well as Hunter’s interpretations of local newspaper headlines in the style of the Flemish masters, the show included photos of Hackney landscapes which weren’t present in the National Gallery exhibition. These seemed eerily similar to some of the landscapes which I’ve tried and failed to photograph recently. Hunter failed in similar ways and for similar reasons to me. And here’s a clue to what annoyed me so much about this exhibition: I was overwhelmed with feelings that “I could (and do) do that”. Not that I claim I could do better (for one thing, Hunter’s handling of light is on the whole better than mine, although I wish he’d pay more attention to the notion of white balance). But Hunter’s mistakes seem to be exactly the same as the ones I make as a journeyman photographer, and I would expect the National Gallery to only offer such a great privilege to somebody with a far greater mastery of the medium.

While I was there, I also picked up a copy of the (excellent) magazine Photoworks. Inside was Ian Jeffrey’s review of Living in Hell and Other Stories. Once I’d got around Jeffrey’s writing style (Jeffrey needs to, as he might himself say, eschew the essentially obfuschatory constituent of his esoteric argot), I realised that Jeffrey wasn’t very impressed either. He touched briefly on the technical aspects of Hunter’s works, and concedes that Hunter’s sloppiness may be “nothing more than a contemporary manner”, but Jeffrey takes great issue with the inspiration behind these “New Masters”. Copying the old masters is nothing new (neither is it unique to photography: plenty of old masters themselves copied older masters), but Hunter does not do it terribly well. Jeffrey scents a hidden purpose: perhaps this is all a cynical marketing plot by the National Gallery, a way of getting the general public to take more interest in their collection of old paintings via the slightly sexier medium of modern photography. It’s a moot point, and one argued in a slightly clumsy manner, but the fact remains that Hunter’s works feel immature and not fully formed.

On the plus side, the photographs are beautifully printed on metallic paper (a current obsession of mine), hung well, and are well worth a look at if only to see whether or not you agree with me. Plus while you’re there you can see some of the other wonderful works in the Graves Gallery’s collection.

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