On an evolving ‘Live Studio Wall’, part of Hannah Starkey’s exhibit at Hepworth Wakefield, is a collage of small-scale layered prints with scribbled notes. We read :
tools of the revolution
Find your own story
Going through the Starkey photographs, I wondered who or stories were being glimpsed – the subjects or the photographer? The artist refers to the girls and women she captures as ‘icons’ and while this is presumably meant to elevate her subjects, it is an unsettling description. Making an icon – understood by Starkey as “emblematic of the female experience” – from a real woman, or any human being for that matter, is a projection from the outside and too often leads to a diminishing and artificial idealization.
Starkey is aware that in photographing her subjects, she fixes them not only in time and space, but also in a particular role. The majority of his photographs are staged: a scenario is chosen by the artist; real people or actors are cast as characters; a location is found. She only works with the consent of her subjects, stating, “I don’t want to traumatize women. I think the camera is quite traumatic. Mutuality is at the heart of its action.
His compositions are most invigorating and impressive when the final creation eclipses the choices made and the methods used to capture the image. In Butterfly Catcher, 1999 a couple of teenage girls in dark tracksuits stride through an expanse of rubble, behind them a half-overturned spinning mill and, beyond, the familiar low mountain under a gloomy, cloud-covered sky. Photographed shortly after the Good Friday agreement, the partly demolished building and rubble symbolizes the destruction and obliteration that sometimes precede regeneration, while the girls, heading out of frame in search of “butterflies” elusive, head into the future with all the promise and uncertainty that comes with it.
Untitled, August 1999, meanwhile, depicts four elderly women (one of whom, we are told in the exhibition, is the artist’s mother) standing in front of a community center, partially lit from above by outside light. A woman (the mother?) dressed in an animal print dress and bold jewelry is in the spotlight. His eyes are closed. A hand is pressed into his waist. She points to a foot that floats in the air as if about to dance or hesitantly step forward. Here, exposition and mystery coexist to create a pleasant friction as we wonder what was designed and what was spontaneous, what is real and what is only the appearance of reality. Both images were taken in Belfast, where Starkey was born, and her familiarity with the culture and location is perhaps what makes them so tender. Exactly situated, they are resonant, tart, almost devotional – the faces and bodies of his subjects reflecting a complex interiority.
In the aftermath of 9/11 and “around the time of the London bombings,” Starkey notes and attempts to capture a “change in normal life.” The resulting images – The Dentist, 2003, Newsroom, 2005, Untitled, May 2004 and Untitled, September 2006 – while beautiful and ambient, they’re neater and more immediate, with fewer unexpected details – they feel boxed in, almost commercial. The backs are turned or the expressions on the faces are vague. Similarly, Starkey’s photographs around the 2017 Women’s March, while of historical note, are overly explicit in their message, replaced by the placards they depict, and therefore less compelling than the more subtle and emotive works. .
Untitled, May 2022 brings the viewer back to Belfast. A young girl in pale pink and teal anime cosplay with long crimson hair walks past a Sandy Row mural, down a winding street with unpredictable markings. In front of you, a seagull with open wings stands on the edge of the sidewalk. Gulls drift overhead. The familiar and the unusual coincide, true to life.
Images of Belfast with intricate and allusive textures, whether made in the late 1990s or more recently, are powerful in their attention to privacy glimpsed in the context of a larger political and historical moment. Without sacrificing their particularity, the figures resonate beyond this moment. In Untitled, August 1999, for example, a trio of girls waits at the foot of a wall, which forms the background of the whole image. In the foreground, their friend, trailing behind, is photographed as she turns to look over her shoulder at someone or something out of frame. Christian iconography, graffitied names and clothing tell us this is modern Ireland, but it could just as easily be another country or another era.
“Hannah Starkey: In Real Life” is at Hepworth-Wakefield, West Yorkshire until April 30, 2023.