Exercise: Tom Hunter

Tom Hunter’s work explores themes that are relevant to his local neighbourhood. Living in Ellington Road in a squat in Hackney he produced The Ghetto in a response to a news article which described the area as crime-ridden and derelict. The photographs featured his friends and neighbours and was an attempt to save the community from developers.

At college Hunter was heavily influenced by Vermeer’s work and he studied his work in depth. Using a 5 x 4 camera he became totally fascinated by the colour and depth of light that was revealed in these transparencies. While still living in the squat at Ellington Road, Hunter and all his neighbours received eviction notices. The notices were addressed to “Persons Unknown” and Hunter made a series of staged photographs influenced heavily by the work of Vermeer. His intention was to draw attention to this group of people (himself included) who were living in the squats, that they be accorded dignity and acknowledged that they too had voices to be heard. His most well known photograph in this series, Woman Reading a Possession Order which won the John Kobal photographic award in 1998, was inspired by Vermeer’s Girl reading a letter at an open window. Interestingly, there has always been some speculation as to who or what the letter in the painting contained, but recently it has been discovered that the figure of Cupid in Vermeer’s painting was overpainted by a subsequent owner and restorers have now revealed about half of Cupid’s figure which is painted on the wall above the girl. Vermeer used the Cupid motif in a few of his paintings, so a viewer’s interpretation now, upon seeing the representation of love in the original oil painting will be definitely slanted towards the letter being a love letter.

In Hunter’s representation, the woman is also standing in front of a window, the light streaming in to highlight her features. Her pose is the same as Vermeer’s girl, but instead of a spilled basket of fruit on the table as in the original, we see a baby sprawled out looking at its mother. Hunter uses art historical references to lend gravity to his work and uses elements of fiction in his work. Sometimes he just poses his subjects, other times he will stage the whole scene, arguing “that his fictions aren’t necessarily less truthful than straight documentary” (Smyth, 2012).

His Living in Hell and Other Stories series is a recreation of real-life stories/tragedies that happened, pulling captions for the images from local newspaper headlines, allowing the viewer to recreate the historical narrative for himself. Apart from the Dutch masters, he also draws much inspiration from the pre-Raphaelite painters who also passed social commentary in their works of art. Even though his work is staged in this series, it is made on location so it retains a certain degree of veracity.

I have always been a fan of Tom Hunter’s work since first coming across it in the C&N module. The way he draws inspiration from Renaissance painters is quire remarkable and the the way he makes use of the symbolism in art history and blends it with today’s social commentary is brilliant.



Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister: Vermeer (2019) At: https://gemaeldegalerie.skd.museum/en/research/vermeer/ (Accessed  18/11/2019).

Photographer Spotlight: Tom Hunter (s.d.) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=20&v=BuuMLEAF9Dk&feature=emb_logo (Accessed  18/11/2019).

Smyth, D. (2012) Think Global, Act Local | Tom Hunter. At: http://www.tomhunter.org/think-global-act-local/ (Accessed  16/11/2019).

The Essay – Under the Influence – Tom Hunter – BBC Sounds (2011) Directed by May, J. 31/03/2011. 24 min 4 secs. At: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b00zt7ky (Accessed  18/11/2019).

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