Tom Hunter

Posted on January 14, 2013


Tom Hunter is a British photographer whose work I referenced for my Markets Assignment (see here). He had produced a series of group portraits of local traders/shopkeepers in Hackney, Trading Places which was relevant to my work.

Hunter’s work centres on his local environment of Hackney. In his essay which prefaces his new book The Way Home he cites Vermeer as an influence. In Hunter’s view this artist has “created a template for artists wanting to show the dignity of ordinary people involved in their daily lives, elevating the ordinary into the extraordinary.’  (Hunter 2012, pp 9) For Hunter this idea has been a driving force. The referencing of art history is also a feature of his work, which he has used in a number of his projects.

There are many facets of Hunter’s work which interest me, so I have decided to present a comprehensive review in this post. I will give particular attention to his portraiture work but his photographs of urban scenes and interiors of buildings are relevant given my developing thinking for my East End London project. Hunter has produced many photographic series and in my review I’ve focused on those which seem particularly relevant to my own work. Tom Hunter has kindly given me permission to reproduce his photographs in this post. I have downloaded the photographs from Tom’s website here.  Many thanks Tom.


Brick Lane

The first series in the book are some early black and white street photographs of Brick Lane. Brick lane is street renouned for its market and links to the rag trade. These days it is the centre of the Bangladeshi community and has become a bit of a tourist destination. Hunter had a market stall on Brick Lane and used to take photographs of his customers. Hunter’s fascination with photographing East London began early. Most of these photographs are portraits and Hunter’s desire to present his subjects with dignity is apparent.

Ridley Road Market

This is series of pinhole photographs of the frontages of shops in the Ridley Road market area of Hackney. The extreme wide angle of the pinhole records the full extent of the produce on display on the stalls in front of the shops. What is fascinating about this series is the way Hunter has used it to document the cultural diversity in his local community The use of pinhole also makes the images seem a little dreamlike (my impression) which could be an allusion to the transient nature of the population in Hackney.

Ridley Road Market © Tom Hunter

Ridley Road Market © Tom Hunter

The Ghetto

This is a series of portraits Hunter’s friends and neighbours made when he was studying for his photography degree at the London College of Printing in 1993/94. The title is taken from a headline in a local newspaper which described the area Hunter and his neighbours lived in as  “a crime-ridden, derelict ghetto, a cancer – a blot on the landscape.” The photographs were used as part of a campaign to save the community from developers and Hackney council. Fourteen years later the community is still very much intact. The portraits show the residents to be just ordinary folk, living their lives. Many are averting their gaze which conveys a sense of vulnerability. Hunter’s use of a large format camera and transparency film gives the photographs a distinct quality, somewhat akin to an oil painting. The colours are rich and the images shows the interiors in great detail.  Interestingly Hunter displayed the transparencies in a 3D model of the squatted street in Hackney where they all lived.

Prayer Places

This is a series of  interiors of buildings used for religious ceremonies, including mosques, churches and meeting houses. They were taken with a pinhole camera which provides a very wide angled view. As for the Ridley Road market images this series is another way of looking at the diversity within Hunter’s locality. How does one portray religious diversity through photography. This is one approach. I think it works very well. There is a contemplative feeling about the photographs which are low key and rich in colour.

Prayer Places, Greek Church © Tom Hunter

Prayer Places, Greek Church © Tom Hunter

Holly Street 

This series of  portraits is of the residents of the Holly Street estate, Hackney. They were made in 1997 when this estate was was about to be demolished. It is a sensitive portrayal of the residents. As with his other portrait series Hunter affords his subjects with dignity and gravitas. The portraits are environmental giving significant prominence to the rooms within which the subjects are pictured. One can look at these portraits on many levels. For the subjects themselves they are about memory. For the social historian they are a documentary record of living conditions in the late 90s. For the casual viewer they are ripe for exploration. I found myself looking for linkages between the subject and their possessions. In this particular portrait for example the tidiness, the shield and picture of the Queen, the desk with its huge chair all give me the impression of an organised person who has spent time in the military. This leads on to my wondering about where this man has served and so on.

Holly Street Voids

This is a companion series to Holly Street in which Hunter has photographed the interiors of empty flats in Holly Street. In the absence of the occupier of the flat the imagination has free rein to consider who used to live here. The emptiness of the rooms also rams home a sense of absence and loss which refers directly to the impending demolition of the building.

Holly Street Voids © Tom Hunter

Holly Street Voids © Tom Hunter

Persons Unknown

This is another series of photographs relating to Hunter’s experiences squatting in Hackney. The title refers to the addressee on the eviction notice received by each of the residents.  The postures and gestures reference Vermeer’s paintings and are designed to give dignity and  status to the community. As I mentioned in my introduction referencing high art in photographs of everyday modern life in his community is an approach which Hunter has used on several occasions. He does it with a clear purpose – to elevate the status of his subjects. I think it works. The photograph below is perhaps one of his best known.

Woman Reading a Possession Order © Tom Hunter

Woman Reading a Possession Order © Tom Hunter

Trading Places

This was the series which first introduced me to Hunter’s work. I was making a series of portraits of market traders in London and was looking for references to place my work in context. My photographs were taken with a small camera with me working in an opportunistic mode. I asked all of my subjects if they would allow me to photograph them along with their stall. But they had not had any warning and time to dwell on what this might mean. Hunter’s portraits are of local Hackney tradespeople pictured in their shops, workshops, cafes etc.. They were inspired by a nineteenth-century model of a local a butcher’s shop in the Bethnal Green Museum. As with several of his other series these portraits show clearly the diversity of his neighbourhood.

When I compare my own Market  portraits to Hunter’s Trading Places,  my subjects seem to lack the dignity and pride which Hunter’s subjects are display. I thought long and hard as to why this is. I now believe that it  could be because Hunter seems to have spent time with his subjects – an inevitable consequence of using a large format camera which cannot be done on the fly.  I guess that he might have told them about the model in the museum which would have  placed them within an historical tradition. He was somehow able to make them feel important. Hunter refers to this in the following passage from an interview with Tim Birch: ““I use a 5×4 camera, large format,” Hunter clarifies, “I use a tripod. I use Polaroids in the planning stage.” Moreover, Hunter suggests “My subjects are made to feel important.” All of this pays dividends in the finished article.” (Tom Hunter Website)

There are many lessons to be learned from this. Below is one of my photographs alongside one of Hunter’s. The viewer of this blog can form their own opinion.

St James' Church Market, Piccadilly © Keith Greenough

St James’ Church Market, Piccadilly © Keith Greenough

Trading Places - Off Licence © Tom Hunter

Trading Places – Off Licence © Tom Hunter

Unheralded Stories

In this series of photographs Hunter depicts folklore and myths built up in the Hackney community in the last 25 years. The photographs reference historical tableaux paintings celebrating life by transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, which is a common theme in Hunter’s work. In Death of Coltelli, 2009, Hunter refers to Delacroix’s tableaux Death of Sardanapalus, 1827 and reconfigures this to depict an epic local mythical tale about the passing of an Italian immigrant grandmother who had founded a café on Amhurst Road. This approach is a fascinating way of representing the culture of a local community.

Unheralded Stories - Death of Coltelli © Tom Hunter

Unheralded Stories – Death of Coltelli © Tom Hunter


My initial reference to Tom Hunter’s work was with regards to portraiture but I have learned much more from my more detailed look at his work.

Often as a photographer I have had yearnings to visit exotic locations which I am sure will result in much more interesting work.  Not so for Tom Hunter. He has steadfastly stuck with his local community in Hackney and has established a wonderful record of this community. The lesson here is clear. Do not overlook  your own back yard as a source of material for your photographic work. The temptation is to think that this would be boring when compared to far away places. Hunter has demonstrated through his original approaches this need not be the case.

Another learning point I’ve gleaned from Hunter’s work is the idea of referencing high art in one’s photography. This however has to be done with a purpose. In Hunter’s case his aim was to elevate the everyday to the extraordinary. Implicit within Hunter’s approach is his use of a large format camera which in its very use shows how important the photographer considers the work. It also enables the photographs to be printed large which is part of the process of elevating the everyday.

Hunter’s innovative ways of showing the diversity within his community provided me with much food for thought. The Ridley Market and Prayer Places series work very well in showing diversity. Hunter’s use of a pinhole camera for these series seems to me to link the two series – both are concerned with diversity. The soft focus and distortion of the pinhole also seems to suggest that these works are not only to be interpreted literally but also to be viewed as metaphors for the cultural and religious beliefs of the different ethnic groups in the local community.

With regards to his portraiture, what I take most of all from Hunter’s work is the way he imbues his subjects with a sense of pride and dignity. Respect for his subjects is apparent throughout. This is something I want to achieve in my own work.


Hunter T. (2012) The Way Home Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag

Tom Hunter Website Available from: [Accessed on: 14th January 2013]