Saturday, 12 May 2012

The Vermeer coincidence

Making a photograph as opposed to taking a photograph relies on the photographer deciding beforehand what is the point of the picture, what is the narrative that needs to be expressed, what contextual props need to be seen to help develop the scene. The staging of a photograph, like the composition of a painting or the setting of a scene in a play depends on the artist/director's perspective and what is required to be delivered from the construct.
Woman reading a Possession order
reprinted by kind permission of the artist Tom Hunter

Girl at a Window Reading a Letter (oil on canvas)

Vermeer, Jan (1632-75)

Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden,...
Tom Hunter, Professor in Photography Research, London College of Communications, University of the Arts, London is a photographer who makes (creates) staged photographs. The photograph right won the John Kobal Photographic Portrait Award 2008, it depicts a young female contemplating, what the title leads us to believe is, an eviction order. A baby, again we assume this is her child, looks toward her for protection. There is no expression on the young ladies face, except maybe resignation. There isn't much else in the frame to guide us, the surroundings aren't opulent, there are no curtains on the window. The baby rests on a shawl on top of what we assume is a bed. It is a melancholy image. The title directs and leads the viewer to an emotional conclusion. The subject and her baby will be out on the streets before long. Job done.
The use of headlines in newspapers are designed to draw a potential viewer to consummate the commercial transaction and pick the paper up, in the same way that commercial television relies on ratings to attract advertising revenue, it's sole purpose in life is to delivery people to the advertiser, to draw the viewer in. Footfall, the possibility of a potential sale in vastly increased if the newspaper or the television controller can attract a viewer long enough to engage with them. If Hunter's picture above was untitled it would have much less of an impact, the narrative directed by him impels the viewer to understand the plight of "mother and baby" - where will they go now? Hunter "made" this photograph as his contribution to the fight to save the buildings and street where he was squatting, amongst about 100 other people. The protest worked, the street and the community are still there.
Hunter's inspiration for the photograph above came from Verneer's "Girl at a window Reading a letter" by Vermeer - left. There are a number a things to say about the use of, what might be termed "high art", as an inspiration; Hunter has used a friend as a model, the letter was indeed a Possession Order, the baby was the child of the young woman, he posed them specifically to mirror the Vermeer painting, it was therefore, a fiction - a staged contrivance to develop a specific narrative to the mind of the viewer. Exactly as a headline might do, it was composed to draw the viewer in, to cogitate on the consequence of the letter. The Vermeer painting is, seemingly, less dramatic; it takes some research to find out that there is a theory that the letter the girl is reading might be from her fiancĂ© who is away with the Dutch forces defending the country against the Spanish and the Catholic church. Though the use of apples - the "fall of Eve" in the composition suggests that the letter maybe from an illicit relationship. There are no words to be viewed on the letter suggesting that the contents of the letter are deemed private. The fact that she reads a letter situates her, and her correspondent, into the upper strata of Dutch society.  Personal dramas both. However I think Hunter's inspiration gains further momentum as it draws together the dispossessed - the squatters, living as they do at the lower strata of society - with their counterparts, the typical viewers of high art. Painting, especially at places such as the National Gallery does not have a regular clientele from the social class D/E, those hallowed halls are more usually frequented by Classes A & B. Vermeer's "Girl.." nominally of either A or B is now being juxtaposed with her counterparts in today's society.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Cupid complaining to Venus, about 1525 Oil on wood
National Gallery

Girls' Sex Acts in Club: Court.Cop: 'It can only be
described as having Sex through Clothes"
reprinted by kind permission of the artist Tom Hunter

These twin shots bare some interesting comparison. The Hunter shot showing the stripper in an exorbitant pose, whilst a "punter" moves in for a closer view. At first sight this appears to be a wholly salacious image, the exploitation of the woman for the gratification of the male viewer, both the viewer in the frame and of the frame itself. Hunter's inspiration, the painting by Cranach the Elder, one of very many that he did of the same subject, almost to the point of apparent obsession, displays a young nubile exfoliated girl, who looks directly at the viewer. Her watcher, Cupid, is being ignored despite his protestations as she is clearly performing and being admired for what she is being depicted as - a sex object. The Cranach to me seems more morally dubious - should such a charge be levelled at art -  than the Hunter interpretation of it. Whilst both females are depicted as objects of desire, the Cranach seems more wanton; Venus takes no heed of cupid, despite his obvious cry for help, she is uniformly well lit and her hips are turned to the viewer for to gaze at her sexual parts. Hunter's take is also provocative, but this is a photograph taken for the public to gaze, the Cranach will have been painted for a private commission and drooled over for private pleasure.
Recently I had the opportunity to take a series of pictures of a young woman, After some consideration I had decided that a re-take of Vermeer's "Girls" would be a good idea; most of them surround a single female in various poses. I would set the shot up and try for a modern take - "girl reading an email on her smartphone" was one that I had thought of. As it turned out the young lady had to drop out and the series never got shot. At that stage I was unaware of Hunter's work. I am very glad I didn't go through with it, not only only would my work pale by comparison - Hunter shoots with a large format camera - but my takes would have been thin on narrative. Hunter takes a multi layered approach with these shots, not only are they a modern take, but they wrap the narrative into a comment on both on contemporary society and of the time their inspirations came from. The elevation of the subject and subject matter in Hunter's images to high art, where both are unusual and most times unwelcome visitors, subverts the privilege that the "high art" seeks to occupy as a rite.
These images, rich in metaphor and allusion, cause the viewer to stop and examine not only the plight of the subjugated class that it utilises, but also the fetishised and elevated status of "high art".

Lady writing a letter with her Maid, c.1670 (oil on canvas)

Vermeer, Jan (1632-75)
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin,...Bridgman
Girl Writing an Affadavit
reprinted by kind permission of the artist Tom Hunter
Again, my tutor had pointed out this photographer's work to me and I am very grateful for him doing so, whilst reading up on Hunter's background I notice with interest that the initial inspiration for Hunter embarking on the Vermeer series (and the consequent use of other artists in a similar way) was his tutor - Peter Kennard, whose piece "Haywain with Cruise Missiles" itself a subversion of Constable's iconic painting "The Haywain" which I had seen at the V&A postmodernist show last year. Circles in circles.

Here is a Radio broadcast where Hunter discusses the his award winning photograph
Additional resource:
Living In Hell and Other Stories - National Gallery ISBN 1-85709-331-3
Essays on Tom Hunter's website are here which includes the transcript of the essay he delivered on Radio 3 entitled "Under the Influence" on March 201


  1. I found Tom Hunter when I was researching colours for TAOP ( You might also be interested in the work of Hendrik Kersten. He won second prize in the 2008 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize for his portrait of his daughter— 'Bag' _Vermeer inspired.

  2. Thanks Vicki, I'll have a look at his work - much appreciated.