The Hepworth was in full bloom when I ventured over on a brisk icy morning last week. But within the blue skies and streaming sunlight was a darker backdrop. The news story filling my ears on the train ride over was of Met Police Officer David Carrick pleading guilty, the harrowing details of 71 cases of abuse, the scary truth of how he had continued to serve as a police officer despite the accusations. I stumbled into the building already questioning what it meant to identify as a woman in this age. How any of us are expected to feel safe. To exist in such a space where those who are meant to protect us cannot be trusted. Queue Hannah Starkey. Belfast born Starkey has been photographing women since the 90s but this exhibition at the Hepworth is the first solo survey of her work. The four roomed exhibition spans across the decades of Starkey’s fine art photography, showing her changing practice as a photographer but also charting both the changes and consistencies of identifying as a woman in the UK. “I want to photograph women in their own reality and with their own agency. I photograph them in a space where they are just themselves. There is beauty in the reality of the everyday. It just depends on how you look – photography shows you this.”
The exhibition starts with ‘Women looking at Women.’ These photographs, taken predominately from her 1997 degree show at the Royal College of Art, position the focus on observation. Starkey observes a woman, observing another woman. From an image of three girls looking at another further off, to a child gazing at her mum in the pub, Starkey questions our own power of observation. It is fascinating how quickly my brain sought to construct a narrative from these photos, how a mere look at another constructed a history to the image which would be non-existent if the focus was on a solo figure. Starkey widens the lens, and as a result the figures in her photographs feel universal. We have all been the bored child in the pub, we have all been both the passed-out party goer and the friend responsible for getting them home. “My images are not necessarily about the woman in the picture. They’re about the character or the experience that she represents. They’re icons rather than individual life stories.” This idea of icons in Starkey’s work is further explored in the next series of photographs where she positions her focus on Mothers, both with children, and the moment they find out they are pregnant. Particularly in an untitled work from February 2013 which sees a mother trek through snow with shopping bag balanced on her head, Starkey captures a profound sense of the mother, and female figure, as strong. A warrior and a hero. This is something not common to find in art galleries filled with portraits of women through the male gaze. What helps profoundly with the feeling of power given to women in Starkey’s work is the scale of them. These looming photographs dominate the wall, appearing more like stills from some epic film than photography of the everyday. Starkey gives power to the everyday lives of women.
This power is realised more explicitly in Starkey’s more recent work in which she photographed protests for Women’s rights and Climate Change. Here Starkey moves away from her traditional medium of staged photographs and instead captures women in action. These pieces are particularly interesting because the focus is again not on the individual women themselves but their feelings and emotions. The women in these photos are often in shadow, the light placed instead on the signs they are holding. A sense of unity and belonging within collective womanhood. Returning again to the idea which sparked Starkey’s journey as an artist: to depict the experience individual women present. “This was a place full of women, and they all wanted to be photographed. They wanted to be seen. They’d made these beautiful signs. They were angry. There was a collective sense of asking ‘why are all these women feeling like this?’” At the end of the exhibition, after wondering around in awe, surrounded by photographs depicting just what it meant to inhabit this space we call ‘woman,’ I came across the short film where Starkey talks about her work and a new project she took on in tandem alongside this exhibition with young women studying at a Wakefield performing arts college. This film was so pertinent I had to watch it twice. In it Starkey addresses how she feels her work has changed, and how it has had to adapt with the world around it. She spoke of a feeling within women when she first started taking photographs in the late 80s and 90s, a sense that we really might do it. That women would get to live as equal to men and occupy the same rights and control over our bodies. But how with the 21st century came a rise in technology, consumerism and right-wing politics which seemed to push this feeling back down. The devastating overturn of Roe vs Wade flashes into my head.
She also spoke of a change she has seen in women’s attitude toward being photographed and how now, where photographs of women are always at the end of our fingertips, getting a stranger to pose for her has become more difficult. The self-criticism women have of the way the look is astronomically high because comparison is easier than ever. The subtitle of this exhibition seems a nod towards this rise of social media. Starkey is seeing women in real life. Her photographs are propelled by a sense of slowing down, not scrolling past. She photographs women in a liminal space. There is a sense in which, as seen particularly explicitly in Newsroom and Dentist, something is about to happen and yet your focus is on the woman inhabiting the space not the action surrounding her. “There’s this idea that women have to perform in front of the camera and be animated for the gaze. I wanted to make a picture showing how beautiful the everyday is.” These characteristics of Starkey’s work are brought together in the exhibition’s final series of images, taken most recently, with the young female students in Wakefield. Wakey Tavern, Beauty Shop and Bus Stop all show women inhabiting space. Although they are specific locations, the spaces are universal, as are the women. Bus Stop in particular, summed up for me the duality of specify and anonymity in Starkey’s work. All these women, of varying ages, occupying the same space. They could be anyone and yet we feel deeply connected with their experiences and who they are, through the construction of the photographic narrative. A sense of sisterhood and community, with no loss of individual identity.
I left the exhibition feeling invigorated. It felt so refreshing to see women pictured through the female gaze in a way which was not seductive or glamorous. Photographs taken on the models’ terms. But I was also frustrated. How, after nearly ten years of consuming, practicing, and studying art was I only now coming across Starkey’s photography? Perhaps I have not been looking hard enough. Or in the right places. Or perhaps it is once again an example of the lack of representation in the art world. Starkey’s work is exceptional; revolutionary. And given the current state of things, part of an urgent answer to a very real problem. Women with their own agency. On their own terms. Taking up space.
Words: Julia Brookes
Image Credit: Julia Brookes