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Book Review: The Way Home

The Way Home. Photographs by Tom Hunter.
Published by Hatje Cantz, 2012.
The Way Home
Reviewed by Faye Robson

The Way Home
Photographs by Tom Hunter.
Hatje Cantz, 2012. Hardbound. np, 9-3/4x11-3/4".

Writing of his 25-year odyssey through photography – most of whose paths have lead through and towards his home, the London Borough of Hackney – Tom Hunter stresses the uniquely diverse and multiple character of his favorite subject and locale. As Hunter puts it: "Hackney is veneered with traces of a bygone era of grandeur, interwoven with people washed ashore, mixed-up cultures and architecture, worlds within worlds." It is a good place to start when discussing The Way Home, as this fascination with place-as-palimpsest is key to Hunter's subtle handling of themes such as urban poverty, industrial history, and marginal or mobile communities; it also, however, throws up the limitations of the slightly unfocussed edit presented here and of this book as object.

Put bluntly, Hunter is not well served by the traditional monograph format, at least not in this blank, somber iteration, which renders some of the 17 series shown here repetitive and banal, and which does not always work to communicate the creative journey Hunter places at the heart of his work. The series Prayer Places, for example, evokes an almost meditative attention to space and time in the often spectacular and especially diverse places of worship scattered throughout Hackney. Bucking the trend seen in much contemporary photography of place, for minutely-observed detail and visual metonym – a gilt cross or rosary-clutching devotee as stand-in for Roman Catholicism, for example – these are attempts to capture an architectural character whole, in one wide-angle, deep focus shot. These images, for me, are simply frustrating: they are low on visual information, neither sublimely impressionistic nor quite objective documentary, a blankness that is only emphasized by the modest, uniform way in which they are presented here. Hunter is not insensitive to the subtleties of the places he depicts – in his introductory essay, he carefully describes the use of pinhole cameras in these buildings to absorb light and 'atmosphere' over a long exposure without the intrusive, spontaneous click-and-flash of most photographic techniques. However, both here and in a parallel series of other, more secular Hackney interiors, the virtues of this quiet approach are somewhat lost in a bland edit.

The Way Home, by Tom Hunter. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2012.

The complete retrospective approach here also sometimes fails to throw enough emphasis onto, or do justice to, Hunter's eye for detail and his humane, socially engaged approach. Some of his interiors, such as the St. John's Ambulance Station or Community Centre for Refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, are considered studies in the anonymity of low-rent public spaces, requiring a careful eye to 'spot' the single prop or living, decorative detail that points to the function and identity of a space (e.g. the beautiful and carefully placed dragon masks on stage at the Community Centre). As Geoff Dyer puts it in his short but perceptive text in this volume, these photographs, as well as those of provisionally decorated squats or briefly occupied social housing, present the evidence of marginal and alternative communities; they are a portrait of 'transience as a survival strategy'.

The Way Home, by Tom Hunter. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2012.

A moral, active sensitivity to these layers and markers of identity within fast-moving, often transient, communities is similarly evident in early series such as Hackney Road (1990-91), where one photograph depicts a motley street sale of bikes, prams, rolled-up carpets and even a blow-up doll, scattered across a scene comprising both Victorian brick industrial structures and cheap 1960s modernism, all of it layered with spidery graffiti. The evidence of passing historical time, as well as passing custom, is all over this image.

The Way Home, by Tom Hunter. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2012.

Hunter achieves a more ambiguous emotional effect where he layers reality and fiction, past and present, in his later, and best-known, series Living in Hell and Other Stories, which was exhibited at London's National Gallery in 2006. Based on headlines from the Hackney Gazette newspaper, these photographs stage usually violent local events in still, detailed tableaux, often referencing art historical sources. The sensational title of Gangland Execution for example, is at odds with the almost bucolic waterside scene presented, and is perhaps the sole clue that something disturbing lurks in the softly reflective waters. The layering of picturesque artistic tradition with sordid contemporary affairs, and the almost ironic admission of another voice e.g. that of the outraged UK press, to this work, lends a universality to this image of violence, stripping it of melodrama or moral judgment. However, there is an argument to be made that this too-careful, considered approach is in danger of aestheticising real suffering, and presenting it with the wooden detachment of a crime-scene reenactment, as opposed to the liveliness of Hunter's less staged work.

The Way Home, by Tom Hunter. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2012.

Still, the danger of romanticizing suffering and poverty is one to which Hunter is keenly alive and the variety of techniques and approaches on display in this book evidence the diligence and inventiveness with which the artist has tried to avoid cliche and exploitation. The Way Home is a convincing, rich portrait of one artist's engagement with truth in a very photogenic and alluring locale – I just wish the subtlety of his journey was better reflected in this well-made but slightly unimaginative book.—FAYE ROBSON

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FAYE ROBSON is an editor of illustrated books, currently based in London, UK. She has worked on photobooks for publishers including Aperture Foundation, New York and Phaidon Press, London, and writes a photo-blog called PLATE.