JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 large scale color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the two connected gallery spaces and the reception area on the second floor of the gallery. All of the works are c-prints mounted to Dibond in artist’s frames, made between 2015 and 2018. All of the prints are sized 49×65 inches and are available in editions of 5+2AP. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Placed in the context of a renewed reconsideration of the male gaze and a sense of female empowerment drawn from the #MeToo movement, the various women’s marches, and other overdue changes taking place in previously male-dominated worlds, Hannah Starkey’s photographs of women feel downright prescient. For more than two decades now, the British photographer has been making pictures that step outside the invasive influence of male thinking and seeing, capturing women in ways that highlight subtleties of thought, emotion, and self-identification that have often been left out or overlooked. When she started (back in the late 1990s), her female-centric perspective and aesthetic approach felt surprisingly unexpected and novel; today, it seems we are finally catching up to where she has always been.
This show gathers together a selection of recent images, most of which were made in Paris in 2016 and then in London in 2017. The earlier batch of photographs are among her best, showing off sophisticated control of her scene setting and composition building. Two use reflections in mirrors/windows as a method for fragmenting a single female portrait, where faces multiply and turn upside down, and nearby details are sliced and diced into smaller shards that are then loosely reassembled. Starkey herself appears in a few tiles, the artist, subject, and surroundings all becoming pieces of a larger whole. Both images use the available surfaces to bring an almost Cubist multi-angled simultaneity into one frame.
Starkey’s other Parisian photographs are filled with quiet female self-confidence, especially as embodied by older women. One subject stands in a green-walled restaurant bathed in the warm afternoon sun, her closed eyes and comfortable smile offset by the insistent shadows that surround her – it’s as if she has hidden herself inside an invisible bubble, where the annoyances of the world can’t reach her. Two other works use the naturally grey hair of their subjects as key defining characteristics – one woman looks up at the glamour of an oversized fashion photograph, her own confident gaze unflustered by the beauty on display, while the elegant twist of another’s grey hair defines an outward stance that feels both refined and self-assured. The last woman stands silhouetted in a window-filled museum, her body turned to face a vitrine containing a stag; in a simple pose, it seems to exude reserved female confidence in the face of a flashy male display, her examining curiosity almost scientific.
Starkey’s images from the 2017 Women’s March in London are much less consistently successful. While Starkey’s art has always walked an indeterminate line between documentary and staging, the march pictures drift further toward the serendipity of street photography, with much less ability for Starkey to control the scene setting. The other problem common to all march pictures is the tendency to focus on the witticisms found of well crafted signs, thinking that their punchy humor or sarcasm will be enough to carry a picture on their own.
When Starkey gets it right, it is the women in the frame who are the central subject – a woman in a plaid coat and yellow scarf, or another with flowing hair and a fur coat are two of the better examples. In these images, we are engaged not by the cleverness of the phrasing but by the stance of the women, which is where the visual weight should be. Other pictures are more forgettable, or just slightly less obviously made by Starkey. The most complex composition of this group comes in an image of a woman with her two daughters, all three in fur coats and holding signs saying “Inspire Sisterhood” and “Say No to Bullies”; the central arrangement is flanked by a flow of hair and a painted floral mural, the entirety connecting the dots in more of the controlled manner we have come to associate with Starkey.
Across her career, Starkey has shined most when her photographs have given us a sense of the psychological and emotional landscape of being female, her subtlety and indirectness often allowing us to see behind more straightforward facades. Measured against that standard, many of the images in this show of new work successfully rise to the challenge of seeing something quiet and reflective, where a moment becomes a stand in for a deeper truth.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at £15000 each. Starkey’s work has only recently begun to appear in the secondary markets, primarily in the London sales; prices have ranged from roughly $2000 to $7000.