To the badlands via the Louvre

Tom Hunter is not the first photographer to make his own village into his canvas. Robert Doisneau, born in the modest Parisian suburb of Gentilly, became the poet of the narrow, careful living of postwar France, a journalist with an engaged but outside eye. Tom Hunter creates tableaux in Hackney, his east London home, in which it is clear that everything has been set up by the photographer. His characters are Hackney dwellers but they are also actors under his direction.

These obvious differences mask substantial similarities. Doisneau was certainly not above elaborate setting-up: he once waited days in a darkened shop to photograph passers-by looking (sneakily or with Rabelaisian glee) at a nude he’d placed specifically to catch their eyes. Hunter, conversely, has been concerned with the daily news, and made many of his tableaux in direct response to stories in the local Hackney papers. He manages to describe the specifically local in such a way as to attain relevance far beyond the bounds of the borough, even anchoring certain elements of his pictures on familiar great paintings. His most famous picture was of a girl in Hackney reading an eviction notice in mimicry of a Vermeer.

His most direct borrowing in the new series is a picture called “Anchor and Hope”. In a remake of the American Andrew Wyeth’s famous “Christina’s World” (1948), in which a girl stricken with polio crawls across a dry summery field, Hunter has a girl crawl across the lush marshes of the river Lea towards the pub which gives his picture its (evocative) name.

Where the girl in the Wyeth is only just in motion, Hunter’s version is more obviously making progress. We can see the trampled grasses left in her wake. Is she struggling towards a promised land of housing projects and a not-obviously attractive pub? Has she been abandoned in the marsh, to make her way back or not as may be? Each picture has these uncertainties, and they are what give them so much narrative texture. They demand repeated thought and repay it.

As often with Hunter, many of the images in the new series have a languid sadness about them which is curiously appealing. In “The Death of the Party”, two girls nurse hangovers or remorse in an interior of precisely that kind of artists’ chic which interior decorators strive so impotently to recreate. Above their heads, two oversize bulbs burn with a mildly sickly yellow glow, perfect real-world transcriptions of the thought-bubbles of so many cartoons. What are these girls thinking? What happened last night? We find ourselves trying to fill the empty thought bubbles, to complete the narrative so ably started by Hunter.

A picture called “The Death of Coltelli” shows a bare-chested girl draped on a bed in a manner that is definitely familiar. Judicious prompting brings the reference: Delacroix’s “Death of Sardanapalus”, in the Louvre. Thank you. Hunter’s references are buried quite deep: you won’t necessarily catch each one. But they act as thickening ingredients all the same. Where the Delacroix is positively operatic (the painting was itself the inspiration for an opera by Liszt), Hunter confines himself to the simpler chords of the blues. But the harmonies of the romantic painting beyond are still there. Even if you miss the reference altogether, the fact that the girl is posed for tragedy in a way that no sensible girl would adopt makes it certain that something beyond merely slavish photographic realism is in play. It’s a very effective strategy. The single figure of the photographed girl is surrounded by ghosts, the crowd of other figures around her painted original.

These bigger, weightier tableaux are accompanied by another series, of smaller room interiors from various institutions around Hackney. Community centres, churches, dance halls and so on, all photographed straight down their longest axis in murky available light. They are stagey places, built to tame the wild dramas taking place on the streets outside. The very regularity of the series gives the game away: the people of Hackney don’t fit easily into these places. The community centre interiors are not very likable pictures but they do make yet another texture to lie under the main ones.

‘Unheralded Stories’, Purdy Hicks Gallery, London until January 15.

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