Currency of visibility

Hannah Starkey
Forfatter: Photography 1997-2017
Forlag: Mack
PHOTOGRAPHY / Hannah Starkey's retrospective photo book depicts a maturing journey in women's eyes.


For the graduation exhibition at the Royal College of Art in London in 1997, Northern Irish Hannah Starkey hired female actors to create photographic reconstructions of observed reality. With her seven monumental works, she took the British art scene by storm.

Starkey quickly became his own agent and was purchased by both Tate Modern and Saatchi Gallery. But insisting on complete focus on women's looks was not an obvious success formula for the artist's career. Equally, Starkey has only photographed women for over twenty years. This retrospective photo book testifies to her gradual awareness process.


The feminine visual representation has long been very limited. Photo artists such as American Cindy Sherman and Norwegian Vibeke Tandberg play with a stencil representation of the woman, especially with references to the film's archetypal portrayal. Starkey uses naturalism via the observed – which is recreated in the slightly corrected version – as the foundation for his photographic works. Sherman, with her distorted portraits, now available on her open Instagram account, deliberately caricatured the look of fixation by exploring the grotesque boundary of what cosmetic surgery can produce from extremities. Starkey goes the other way and lets the volatile, spontaneously poetic or picturesque promote the diversity of women in the visual space.


Sherman's eye-catching (self) portraits act as crass comments in the public debate. Hannah Starkey's approach is more sublime, and she is rarely in the picture. Like Tandberg, Starkey has a love for the everyday and not the dramatic. There Tandberg's work – as in the series Living together – communicates conceptual power and authentic nerve even in the stage where she herself participates, Starkey's sense of cool elegance is experienced as distance creator. One may wonder whether Starkey herself is a victim of the indoctrination of visual female stereotype she simultaneously wants to live. But with her photographs, Starkey has far from a cool agenda. In her conversation with Liz Jobey towards the end of the book, she talks passionately about visual power and the impact we are touched by:

«I really think that visual culture is the last battleground for women's equality and freedom. The same type of images are shown to young women again and again, so it becomes a very limited visual language representing what it means to be female. – Yet there is no education about this in any of the schools, no mechanism set up to teach young people how to deconstruct and defuse the power of these images. »

Nurturing vision

If Starkey is taken on the word, the photo book can be read as a training in deconstructing the power of the image. In an attempt at self-study, I do a close-up of selected individual photographs, the selection I describe is limited by what the publisher allows to print:

"Untitled August 1999": (photo 1) Four middle-aged women stand clad in the tram outside what appears to be a public building. Only two of these are in direct contact. A red-haired woman in an animal pattern dress adds body to the embarrassment of this dysfunctional close-together. The picture expresses an outer space with room for multiple interpretations. With a forward hip and belly, just one last woman stands more firmly in her loneliness in the herd.

"If I'm not on the visual landscape, then I have no currency."
Hannah Starkey

"Untitled March1999": (picture 2) Three girls show with their looks and body language that a recent teenager in the second part of the picture is not included in the gang. Starkey has ironically depicted the clover under three biblical figures on a wall. Where Christianity is known to preach inclusion, ruling techniques are the gospel of the younger. The banned is wearing a blood-red eye-catching skirt. The visible arm slowly hangs down the side. With such small, almost insignificant and just as significant details, Starkey shines in his theme of relationship and freezing. Starkey is not looking for the sensational or flashy. In several interviews on YouTube, she mentions that she draws on experiences and experiences from her own life. Generational meetings between women are a pervasive motif that strikes with both sincerity and exploration drive.


Is the picture an indication that the fight Starkey refers to is not only between gender, but also between the women themselves? In both of the images mentioned above, eyes are significant. In the first photograph, the two callers avoid looking at the other two. The theme of systematically overlooking women is one of Starkey's fad horses: “As a middle-aged woman now, I'm absolutely amazed that I don't feature anywhere in our mainstream visual culture. There are no pictures that I relate to as an older woman. What am I supposed to do, just disappear? If I'm not on the visual landscape, then I have no currency. ”

life Travel

Even Starkey fines the lack of offering his own life journey. The works reflect her development through pregnancy to motherhood and on to mature woman. The vulnerable gaze the woman is targeting is also central. Starkey's photographs grow in power as she dares to ask randomly observed women to pose. With this, photography becomes a gesture – a compliment – a tribute to women's radiance and presence.


Starkey argues for a new visual construction of the woman. Today's communication is mainly based on images and must therefore be separated from the powerful middle-aged white man, she believes. Starkey grew up with women's struggles, and the mothers she knew fought in the streets of Belfast. She now leads the fight further through the camera and into the galleries. But several of the images show me that women are reduced to aesthetic objects that slip into the surroundings, (picture 3) which The Dentist (2004), where the waiter in short skirt has legs elegantly crossed and the pointed pumps are reflected in the floor which is as polished as the patient is positioned. Several contemporary photographs depict demonstration trains, but unfortunately the images lack infectious engagement. Digital manipulation robs the images of authenticity. A desired reinforcement of composition and content leads to flattening. The exception is the photograph Long live the Vulva [which we can't show here, ed.], where a demonstration banner is raised by a little girl photographed in front of a male giant arm. The child's face against the biceps immediately hits and triggers a wry smile. The protest in the small body against the power of authority is genuine – and well presented.

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