Published on November 22, 2012 | by Mikkel Stern-Peltz


From Hackney to the National Gallery

A girl surrounded by shrubs, lying in a pond. A recreation of Ophelia.

Tom Hunter draws inspiration from classical artists [Tom Hunter]

The front room of Tom Hunter’s Hackney home is a mishmash of styles and decorations, where his children’s artwork fights books and miscellaneous bric-a-brac for your attention.

However, there is a sense of ordered chaos to the room and you get the feeling that every knick-knack has a story behind it, which is what Hunter seems to be about.

“I’ve always been interested in art, and trying to tell a story,” he says after we have settled in his study, adding that “photography for me, is a visual medium that can tell a story in a very contemporary way and it’s a medium which has a very immediate effect on you.”

Hunter has been a photographer for almost 25 years and was the first photographer to have a solo exhibition at the National Gallery, where he now has two pieces on permanent exhibition. He also recently released his fourth book, The Way Home, which chronicles his work from 1989 to 2012.

“I don’t believe in jetting off around the world to take pictures of wars in Afghanistan, because there are wars in Hackney.” Tom Hunter

Hunter started off photographing passers by from his stall on East London’s Brick Lane on 35mm black and white film.

These formed the basis of the portfolio that got him accepted on to the BA Photography course at London College of Printing in 1991, now the London College of Communication.


“I got completely engrossed in it. I actually read a reading list,” Hunter recalls, speaking passionately about his time at the college. “I read all the books, went to all the lectures, I wrote all the essays, I got obsessed by everything about it – the theory, the contextual studies, the practice, the technical workshops.

I was in the library every night. I was printing [and] photographing in the studio – it became my life and I loved it. It changed my whole life, from being a smelly oik to being a so-called ‘educated person’.”

He is very appreciative of the opportunity offered to him by the English education system, while lamenting its decline in recent years. “It’s a shame that it has been eroded now by this government, but it is still a very worthwhile thing to be part of, I think.”

Since graduating

The majority of his work since leaving LCP has centred around his East London neighbourhood, Hackney, where he has been living for 26 years. “I don’t believe in jetting off around the world to take pictures of wars in Afghanistan, because there are wars in Hackney.

The kids are fighting in gangs, they’re killing each other – we’ve got wars going on here,” he says. “[Hackney] is a community I understand, this is a community I’m part of and this is a community I want to talk about. I love this changing atmosphere, new people arriving – that’s a part of the buzz that keeps me going.”

Hunter spent 15 years living in squats around Hackney, from when he started university, because his grant would not cover his rent.

He is a passionate supporter of squatting and says that although London Fields and Broadway Market are considered “posh” now, they are only like that “because people like myself – people who didn’t have anything, the dispossessed – took hold of the properties that had been abandoned by land developers.

We took them on, we recycled them, we brought them back into use, we built up the community here. Now it’s all gone downhill – now it’s all rich people here – so it’s all backfired in a way,” Hunter laughs, but turns serious when speaking about squatters today.

“I think it is very important what we did here and I feel very sad that this government has decided to make criminals of people who try to make use of abandoned property. I think it’s a huge disgrace to our times.”

His inspiration 

His solo show at the National Gallery, Living in Hell and Other Stories, was based on headlines from the Hackney Gazette, which Hunter was “reimagining … through art-historical paintings”. This art-historical context runs through much of his work, taking inspiration from artists such as Eugène Delacroix and Johannes Vermeer.

The latter was a Dutch painter in the 17th century who specialised in painting scenes from everyday life in his home town and inspired Hunter to create a photography series about squatters in Hackney.

“I looked at Vermeer’s paintings and recreated those with photography. I was trying to invoke the dignity and beauty that Vermeer used with his subjects, and tried to imbue them on to my subjects, lifting their status, trying to show my neighbours, my community in a dignified, beautiful manner,” he says.

“For me, photography just has so much relevance to everyone’s lives. It is a window on the world and I want to talk about the world.” Tom Hunter

“Lots of people were showing squatters in very negative light, especially under Thatcher and the Tories. They were trying to outlaw squatting, and they were trying to scapegoat people who were homeless and I wanted to show the positive side of recycling properties and living alternative lives, so for me Vermeer seemed like a great artist to re-imagine, re-conjure, to bring up and make people think about their lives in different ways.”

Hunter calls Vermeer “a huge influence, and a huge inspiration” and considers paintings and the Old Masters very important to his work. “Photography isn’t something that came out of space, it’s a continuum. It started in the cave paintings and then we went to oil paintings and we’ve gone to film photography. They’re just different forms of expression.”

The medium of choice

“The media of my choice in this time is photography, but it’s the ideas that for me are used, concentrating on the beautiful details of life, illustrating that beautiful life and the quiet meditative moments that I wanted to show within my community,” Hunter says.

“For me, photography just has so much relevance to everyone’s lives. It is a window on the world and I want to talk about the world. With painting, it’s about your imagination, but for me I’m interested in the world outside my window – not my boring imagination.”

In recent years, Hunter has returned to LCC to teach photography students, something that he speaks of with pride. “It’s been great coming back to teach at London College of Communication.

It feels like I am part of a community that’s involved in photography. “I get a lot out of it,” Hunter says of working with the students, from whom he draws a lot of inspiration and energy.

“It’s somehow frightening but also enlightening as well, and I live off that. I get a lot out of it and I’m very selfish in a way; in how I take that energy.”

However, Hunter recognises that he may have a lot to offer students with a passion for photography. “Hopefully, with my experience and what I have been able to do, I am able to give guidance and help to the next generation.”

The future

When asked about his plans for the future, Hunter talks about the despair he feels after finishing a project. “You put your head in your hands and start crying. It feels like you’re never going to start again and you never know what you’re going to do.

“In some ways, it’s a panic time and I’m in that time; I’ve got this blank roll of film and I’ve got to start again. It’s a very hard time in a way. It feels like maybe I should pack it all in; I’ve done my book, I’ve shown everyone what I’ve done – let’s go be a sheep farmer in the Outer Hebrides, let’s piss off and leave it all behind.”

Despite the familiar frustration of finishing a project, Hunter is cautiously optimistic about what is next for him. “Hopefully I’ll find the inspiration.

There are so many stories outside my front door that one of them will grab me and make me do something.”

Tom Hunter’s work is a part of the National Gallery exhibition Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present. His book The Way Home is available through Hatje Cantz publishers.


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