Thursday, 6 November 2008

Hannah Starkey

I've been thinking a lot about Hannah Starkey's talk at Tate and how Butterfly catchers relates to The Lady of Shallot so thought I'd add my notes (partic for those of you who couldn't make it - or fell asleep!...)

For a start I was amazed she only made 4 photos a year - I always imagine photographers to be really prolific... I thought the reasons for her making photos were really interesting - because everyone makes them and everyone understands them. How diff would it have been if she'd done the same thing in painting?

I also had no idea she was from Belfast or that that's where this photo was taken - I imagined growing up somewhere like that with such a strong political history would have made her work more overtly political (e.g. like the work of Willie Doherty or Paul Seawright). Instead it seems to have affected her work in more subtle ways. She said it makes her question the truth of images much more and also how people understand them - are they as they seem?

So, about this photo. When she took it in 1999, she was about 5 years older than the girls in the pic. It was taken on the Falls Road in Belfast - which has a strong political significance in the history of Northern Ireland ( It also has a lot of importance in her personal history of growing up and so it looks at the link between place and growing up and the importance of place on our own identity (like the Bethan Huws). This has started to make me think about my own identity and how much where I grew up, or have lived, has had an impact upon who I am.

The building in the background is a disused linen mill. Apparently this road was lined with linen mills -most of the local women worked in these. For Starkey they represent a strong sense of community between mothers and daughters, neighbours etc - quite often it was money from these mills which kept families going. Many of the women lost their hearing in these mills - it was hard, hard work. She talked a lot about how much her photos focus on the lives of women, partic on everyday activities and experiences and the monotony of these. She talked about having quite a strong mother and how she was interested in her mum's relationships with other women within her family and beyond.

The rubble the girls are walking over is one of these mills which has been flattened - this represents the destruction of this sort of community. The mountains in the background are the Black Mountains - apparently there's a lot of mythology around these which she's interested in - the ghosts of the mill workers ('millies') were said to haunt them. She also mentioned the mythology of the butterfly net and what this represents. The girls' search seems really futile - it's quite dark and looks cold, so there aren't going to be any butterflies. But it also seems to represent hope in some way - despite the weather and time of day, they're still looking for butterflies.

When Starkey makes photos she works closely with actors. So, although they a have the feel of documentary photos - it looks like she could have come across these girls wandering over rubble and snapped their pic - they're actually carefully worked out and posed.

Right, I've run out of time and this has gone on way too long, so i'll write up my thoughts about the links to The Lady of Shallot soon...

1 comment:

Kate said...

I was really interested to hear that in Butterfly Catchers the girls were from a local drama school and that Hannah Starkey felt that by constructing a photograph, rather than just capturing a moment, it was possible to get nearer to the heart of the image and find a psychological truth. I’m not sure I agree with this – isn’t she then imposing herself as an artist on it more?

She talked about capturing a fleeting, everyday moment and that her photographs served to heighten that moment. I was interested to hear her talk about the layering and symbolism in her work so that it took the viewer on an ambiguous and personal journey. She talked about the detail and how the eye needed to move around the work to pick this out.

I liked that Hannah said she was interested in aesthetics and wanted to entice the viewer and give the viewer pleasure through her work and I liked the way that Hannah spoke about women and their strength and practicality. She spoke about the fact that it was often the women who kept food on the table during a troubled history and kept sanity within their families; so her photographs could be seen as a celebration of that.