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Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Greyscale photograph of a grassy hillside with the outline of a figure clearly visible

Artist in Focus: Tom Hunter

[ Artist Interview )

We caught up with Tom Hunter to chat about what inspires him, his focus on storytelling and the inspirations behind his work. Tom’s works, Greg, Powdermill and Wilmington Giant, were part of our Sussex Landscape: Chalk, Wood and Water exhibition.

How does it feel to be included in this exhibition?

It’s a real honour to be involved in such a wide ranging exhibition with so many amazing artists. Many of my favourite artists are in the show. People like Ravilious and Turner, and people like Helen Sear and the other photographers in the show that I really admire, really admire and really like.

It is a real privilege to be included and it was great to come to the opening as well and meet many of the artists who are in the show. The exhibition is an incredible landscape in its own right. It is amazing to see so many works in the same place and to be part of that is really exciting.

Could you tell me a bit about your journey as an artist? How did your photography career begin?

I suppose in some ways it started when I left school at 15. I worked for the Forestry Commission and then as a tree surgeon in London for about eight years or so. And then I hitched around America for a year and it was in that time that I started taking pictures.

None of them really came out very well, but it was in that time that I thought – this is what I really like to do, to travel, to take pictures and make my living in a different way. When I came back to London, I signed up for an evening class, an A-level class in photography, and then I started doing projects around the East End, where I was living at the time. I ended up living in a squat in Hackney and that became a focus of my work.

Photograph of a photograph framed on a white wall with a man stood to the right looking at the camera

Your trip around America sounds amazing. How did that inspire you to take up photography as a career?

I went by myself and had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do with my life. I flew to Canada and then travelled all the way down the East Coast and ended up in Florida and New Orleans. And then I went to the Caribbean and to Puerto Rico, where I worked for the United States Forest Service where I was documenting a part of the rainforest.

I built a platform that went up as high as the highest trees, and I was doing drawings of the fauna and flora in the forest for a survey for three months. From there, I went to Mexico and then travelled up the West Coast and back across Canada.

During that time I saw a lot of very different landscapes, deserts to mountains, to seascapes, to jungles, rainforests to cityscapes. I suppose I just got inspired by what I saw and really wanted to capture that. I failed miserably, but that’s what inspired me to take up photography.

Which other artists or photographers inspired you?

I have done a lot of work around Vermeer and I am very inspired by Golden Age Dutch painting. I’ve always been really interested in painting – my mum and dad used to take me to the National Gallery and the Tate when I was a kid. I still love going to those places.

Painting is something that’s really inspired me for different reasons, at different times. Vermeer inspired me with the intimacy of his subjects. The way that he looked at his subject matter, I find really inspiring because I was taking pictures of squatters in the 90’s and they were very marginalised at the time. We were under Margaret Thatcher and people like travellers, people who were putting on raves, road protesters, were all being shut down and they were normally depicted in black and white, grainy pictures. I wanted to show a beauty and humanity to my subjects. And I think Vermeer was one of the first people to actually do that in art history. He didn’t paint the kings and the queens and the rich patrons of the arts, he painted the ordinary people around him in Delft. So, I love his art, but also love the ideology behind it. I find that really inspiring.

I went to see the Vermeer show (Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) just last week and it was amazing. They are incredible pictures. They really transport you to another world and you really meditate on the people’s lives. You can get caught up in their inner thought process. In a way, that’s what I think a lot of my work is about, trying to get a wider audience to look at people and to give an understanding and a sympathetic view of people’s lives. My work is about giving dignity and humanity to marginalised groups and I think painting and photography is a key way of understanding people’s lives. It is a mirror on the world.

I find painting more interesting in some ways than photography, which can be a bit fast. Photography can be a bit, snap, grab, look and run. That used to be the same in the press and now it’s the same in Instagram, which I love. But we just go through images very quickly, take them in for a second and dump them. That’s what I love about museums like the Pallant House Gallery and all these museums and galleries where my pictures and other paintings have a scale that makes the audience engage with the work. You can spend some time contemplating an image and a scene and maybe what’s happened to the people in them. You can learn about people’s lives and maybe empathise and that’s quite important to me.

Painting of a woman pouring milk from a jug into a bowl on a table with a basket of bread and a blue tablecloth. The woman wears a white cap, and a dress with a yellow top, short blue rolled up sleeves, a dark blue apron and a red skirt.

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, c.1660, Oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Purchased with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt.

Do you deliberately choose to have your photos produced in a large format so that people spend more time looking at them?

Yes and there are two reasons. One reason is the scale and the gravitas of that scale. If you see my pictures on Instagram, you flip through very quickly. When the pictures are printed and they’re hung, there is a gravity to them. There is a physical aspect to the work and you are drawn into that. I think people obviously know that there’s time, effort, money spent on the production. People take that into consideration, they don’t see large scale photographs very often – that’s quite unusual. The way I print, the way I photograph, is intrinsic to that. It also gives the work a cinematic quality. It is almost like you are lost it, like a still from a film and you and the viewers get to actually take on the role of the protagonist within that film. They’ve got to imagine what happened before, what happened afterwards in the image. Imagine themselves in that situation and they can get really lost within that, that sort of magical realism, which I find really interesting.

What techniques or approaches do you use to create your photographs?

In some ways I’m a bit of a dinosaur. I use a really big old-fashioned camera. It’s a large format camera, which means I have plates with film in it. I use sheets of film, not rolls of film, which are five inches by four inches or ten inches by eight inches. That gives a very different quality. It means you can blow the pictures up and you don’t lose any of the quality when you make large pictures. I don’t think there are many people using this technique anymore. It’s getting less and less common, which I think maybe gives my pictures a slightly different look to them. It needs a large tripod, a large camera, mostly natural lighting, and a lot of time setting up, a lot of patience.

It is the opposite of the way people use digital photography now. I love digital photography, but when I take a picture, one sheet of film can cost over £10. You then have to process the film, so you can spend over £20 per photograph, and that’s before you print it. You can’t go onto a hillside and take pictures of someone running through the grass. You can’t take 100 pictures and get back to the studio and edit afterwards and hope for the best because you would be broke, you would have to sell your house. So you have to think about it very carefully. You need to know where the sun is in the sky and what the light is like with the shadows. It’s all about observation and looking before you actually press a button. You’ve got to be very sure before you do that. So it’s very slow and laborious, but very rewarding when you get it right.

Greyscale photograph of a grassy hillside with the outline of a figure clearly visible

Tom Hunter, Wilmington Giant, From Figures in a Landscape, 2018, Silver gelatin print, Tom Hunter artist.

Your work has been described as blurring the boundary between photography and documentary. Would you agree with that? And how would you achieve that effect?

I’m very interested in the idea that the camera never lies – the truth aspect of photography. When I take pictures, they are of a place and of a person, and they are really there, but I’m not a photo documentarian and I’m not taking pictures and saying this is a news event that happened today. Like the painters in the past who would find stories in their communities and re-enact them, my work is also about re-enactment. The question, I suppose, of the story that I’m telling is, how much is it fiction? I have arranged for Jane to be at the canal at that time for Thoughts of Life and Death. She did live in Hackney and she was a squatter at that time and she’s very much part of the fabric. So that’s the documentary aspect of it. But the fiction is, I’ve arranged for her to be there at a time when there is a beautiful light. Does that mean it’s not documentary work? No, it is both fact and fiction.

How do you define a documentary? Ravilious’s work and Turner’s work give amazing insights into life in their own times and that’s why I look at Vermeer or Cézanne. Artists interpret the world around them. And I’m acknowledging that the camera does lie. My work is my interpretation. I have picked out my scenes through rose tinted glasses. I make it look beautiful because I think the squats are beautiful, the raves, the beautiful places, the life around me is beautiful. But lots of other people would say that is just a fiction because that’s anti-social or that’s anti-government or that’s biased. So I play with those ideas of, what is fact, what is pure documentary and what is fiction? My picture’s are documents of a time, but it’s acknowledging that photography is a fiction as well. It comes from me and I’m telling the story. It’s my story.

In our Sussex Landscape exhibition, we are displaying two of your works, Greg, Powdermill A Journey Home series and Wilmington Giant, from Figures in a Landscape. Could you tell me a bit about these works?

These photographs are from two different series. Greg at the powder mill, he’s from a series, A Journey Home and that’s a commission I had with the Lucy Bell Gallery in Hastings. We had Arts Council funding and the idea was to work with a series of migrants and local people who had ended up in Hastings and made it a home through the eyes of taxi drivers.

Lots of the taxi drivers were from all around the world. They were from Afghanistan, from Syria, from Poland, they were from everywhere. Lots of them ended up there and they became taxi drivers because you don’t need your Phd, that some of them had as doctors for example, to earn money, when you need money quickly in a new country.

I met 12 taxi drivers and made oral histories of their lives and how they ended up in Hastings. We then went to their favourite places in the landscape in and around Hastings. I photographed them and they talked about how it reflected their landscape from their home. Greg, for example, he was actually from Russia and he ended up going for a swim in that lake. They are all people who love the new landscapes in their new homes. I was always fascinated by the fact that you get in the back of a taxi and the driver takes you home, but you have no idea where their home is. It was an amazing experience for me to meet all these people and to hear their stories and their lives, where they came from, their struggles and what they did and how they fitted into this new landscape.

The other picture is the Wilmington Giant, part of a series on chalk hill carvings. I shot them on my ten by eight inch large format camera. I was shooting in lots of different locations in the south, lots in Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset and Sussex. I did a whole series of those and one of the most famous ones, obviously was the Wilmington Giant. That whole project covered a much greater area, the whole chalk down regions of the south of England and I think the series is around 12.

Photograph of a man in a white robe look upwards in front of a lake with a building to his left with wooden cladding a tall tree.

Tom Hunter, Greg, Powdermill, A Journey from Home series, 2018, C-type digital print, Lucy Bell Gallery.

A lot of your work is focussed around East London, where you’re based. How has the Sussex landscape inspired your work and how does that differ as a location for you?

It’s a very different location. I live in Hackney. I’ve been here for about 30 years. I squatted for about 15 years in Hackney, and it was a very inner city, quite rough environment. Now it’s changed to become a very gentrified area now but I’m from Dorset originally and I love the countryside. When I get a chance to leave the city, I go to places like Sussex and I’ve got friends in Hastings and then there’s Lewes and Brighton, which I regularly visit.

It is lovely to be outdoors and to be in different places. The last two years I’ve done the Beachy Head Marathon, which goes along the Seven Sisters and starts and ends in Eastbourne. I think that’s what sums it up for me. After being stuck inside my terraced house in East London where I have no views and no outlook, I just love to go to somewhere like the Seven Sisters where you get these incredible vistas, these incredible views. It revitalises your soul.

What are your plans for the future and what are you working on at the moment?

I’ve become more interested in landscapes and over the last year or so I’ve started swimming. I love swimming in the sea or wild swimming, as some people call it. Like a lot of people, I am sick of what the water companies are doing to the sea and to the rivers.

What Feargal Sharkey is doing with his campaign to try and make the water companies accountable, I think it’s really important. I’ve been doing a lot of pictures on waterways and the effects of pollution. I want to celebrate the beauty of this country and its landscapes, but I want to show that if it’s not managed and it’s not looked after and the greedy people are just left to do what they want to do, it will be destroyed.


Tom’s Greg, Powdermill from A Journey Home series and the Wilmington Giant, from Figures in a Landscape were part of our exhibition Sussex Landscape: Chalk, Wood and Water. You can find out more about Tom here.

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