Interview: Tom Hunter

Tom Hunter set a precedent in modern art history as the first photographic artist to be granted a solo show at London’s National Gallery. Hunter’s work is distinctive in its formal compositions which draw on art historical references,  for his compelling, socially engaged subject matter, and for its humane gaze, compassion and respect for his subjects. Taking as his muse the people of Hackney, East London, Hunter draws on the language of old master paintings, deploying their gestures, lighting and composition to imbue his subjects with a sense of drama and dignity.

With three exhibitions opening in London this month, Hunter continues his compelling quest to chronicle the East End: Unheralded Stories at Purdy Hicks, Please Write at Posted and A Palace For Us at the Serpentine. In 2008 Hunter’s solo show A Journey Back was held at the Arts Gallery. See Unheralded Stories on the BBC.

Tom Hunter is a Senior Research Fellow at London College of Communication. An alumnus of LCC, his 1994  graduation work  ‘The Ghetto” was recently acquired by the Museum of London.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got a new film coming up at the Serpentine. It’s a commission I’ve been working on for two and half years, it’s new project I’ve been working on with senior citizens. I’ve finished shooting and I’ve just finished editing that, I’m starting grading and doing the sound next week and that will be screening at the Serpentine opening on 8 December.

What are your top tips for discovering new talent?
Keep your eyes open, go to the degree shows. It’s always exciting to see what’s happening at the degree shows because that’s where you see people really taking risks. It’s a real jumble of levels and sometimes it’s amazing sometimes its not great but it’s exciting, there’s a real raw energy and risk taking at that point. Later on people tend to start playing it safe.

Who is your one to watch?
I really like Bianca Brunner’s work. She graduated from LCC a few years ago and I was quite inspired by her work at the time. She’s just created a book. Her’s is really beautiful, interesting work. Her work is quite different from mine because it’s not about people but the real and the staged. Photographic work always deals with notions of the real verus the staged. I think she’s going to be the next big thing. I’ve heard lots of people are very interested in her; gallerists and collectors are talking about her. But also lots of other people are doing great work, too numerous to mention. I’m always inspired and humbled by  how people from the London colleges create new work within the field of photography. You think there’s no new ways of doing things but people always find  new way of expressing things in a way I hadn’t explored.

Who or what first inspired you to follow your chosen career?
I suppose funnily enough, when that all my work is about exploring the local, when I left home I hitched around America for a few months trying to take photos of the new and amazing landscape and failing badly with my technique, so I then went an enrolled in college to learn how to do it. I’d like to convey the wonder of the world around me. And I think also Sally Mann. The way she describes the everyday things – her locality, her family – but conveys them in a really beautiful, poetic language, really inspired me.

What are you most passionate about?
It changes. I am passionate about education . I didn’t get on well at school and I didn’t start college until quite late, 24 or 25. Having no money and having a chance to go into education and getting a grant at that stage, I will feel eternally grateful for having a chance to get into our education system. I am passionate that we should defend our great education system and that everyone should have a chance at that.

Photography I love and feel really passionate about. I think also doing something the best you can rather than seeing it as a job, and working with people who feel the same way. Putting everything into what you do and doing something you feel really proud of, getting away from the humdrum and doing something you can really believe in.

Which piece of art/design/performance/communication/fashion do you wish you had created?
Stanley Kubrick; I’ve got all of his films and everytime I watch The Shining or Clockwork Orange or Eyes Wide Shut even, again it’s that passion – he was so passionate  to make the best film in each genre and he didn’t care about the time or the money it took. He created masterpiece after masterpiece after masterpiece. To leave a legacy of that stature is incredible. He’s a god in my mind. To have created one work as good as his would be amazing. He had such endurance, such dedication. If I had one 100th of his drive I’d be happy.

There’s something nice in the fact that he did so few films but he did sci-fi, war, horror, he did all the genres  and did them perfectly.

Where is your favourite London haunt?

It’s different at different times of the year.  Springfield Park in summer – there’s a lovely house you can sit outside and have a drink and see Hackney Marshes and then you can wander down the hill and feed the swans. I live by London Fields, I’ve lived there for 25 years so I Iove it there; the park, the pub, the lido. For me London is a place I’m always exploring  and discovering new things which is why it’s so exciting. In December I cycle around and you see new places, new pubs, places lit up in the darkness that look enticing.

What is your guilty pleasure?
Watching five Frasier in a row on a Friday night with a beer and a big packet of crisps and finding it amusing, much to everyone’s disbelief. Staying in when I could be out on a Friday night. Someone said the other day that would be my guilty pleasure because it’s not very rock and roll!

Name a favourite book, song or film
Russian literature – Anna Karenina, Dostoyevsky, I love Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, I love Dostoyevsky’s work. That whole period of Russian history fascinates me – you can smell the Revolution in the air, all the mix of capitalism and socialism waiting to explode.


Horror films, there’s been a lot recently and I would say probably Rosemary’s Baby is a favourite. It always puts the hairs up on the back of my neck! I love New York and the shots of the tenements, Mia Farrow with that short hair, the clash of hippie verus conventional life.

For a song, I’d say God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols as we’ve got a royal wedding coming up – for a bit of anarchy at a time of royal bliss!

What’s next for you?
It’s a funny time for me as I have three shows all in the next three weeks and all of new work, so in some ways I’m  so caught up in all that that I’m not really thinking about what comes after. But I’ll be continuing my exploration of the local, painting the landscape of the world around me. I’ve got some more projects around my neighbourhood and eventually I’ll do a book. I’ve always wanted to do a book of my work so I will start working on that.

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