Photos of the Inner Lives of Women
Irish photographer Hannah Starkey combines fashion, art, and commercial styles to grant her female subjects a psychological complexity that popular culture often denies them.
"Untitled, May 1997." All images © Hannah Starkey. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London
Many of the women depicted in photographs today still fit the Lolita bit—sexed-up girls more prized for cute clothes than conversation. Irish photographer Hannah Starkey is going for something else. The women in Starkey's pictures, grabbing a minute alone or gathered in small groups, evoke a sense of the lives waiting at either edge of the moment captured in the image. You don't know what they're thinking, but the photographs invite you to ask.
Starkey has nearly always used women as her subjects, photographing actresses as well as acquaintances in carefully composed scenes that recall the tradition of cinema stills photography. Stark architectural compositions and an eye for detail merge 20th-century formalism with fashion editorial. Reflective surfaces like mirrors or windows heighten the drama as well as offer multiple views in a single frame, collapsing the image inside and out. This kind of visual play manages to direct you to the interior life of her subjects—Starkey's photographs grant women a psychological complexity that popular visual culture often denies them. The images somehow manage to leave the women on view their privacy while inviting you to look as long as you like.
BROADLY: How did you get started taking photos?
Hannah Starkey: I started taking pictures when I was 14. The GCSE exam system had just been introduced in Northern Ireland, and photography was an option for the first time. It was perfect for me. I was struggling with dyslexia and had recently suffered a head injury that had affected my speech and damaged the area of my brain responsible for word processing. I'm sure that learning the visual language of photography had a lasting effect on my teenage brain as it knitted itself back together. Since then, photography has carved a path for me, and I've just followed. I've never stopped being amazed at its ability to communicate so succinctly things that cannot be put into words.
Why are you drawn to photographing women?
I grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. For 40 years this place was embroiled in a religious conflict known as the Troubles. In this environment, even as a child, I had a sense of the strength of women and what could be achieved if their voices were heard. They spoke against the violence with compassion, reason, and intelligence. They acted with courage and conviction. I believe they could have brought about change, but they were too often dismissed and their voices silenced. All my life I've been surrounded by strong women, yet this quality is largely uncelebrated in mainstream visual culture.
The representation of women is central to constructing our attitude towards gender. What do you want your images to contribute?
Women have been shortchanged by a male-dominated industry for too long. In the last 20 years, I've seen a rise in misogynistic images that grace our billboards, magazines, and other visual media outlets. These images are not benign. We're highly visually literate creatures. We consume vast numbers of images as we go about out daily lives, and they can be subconsciously damaging our sense of self worth, particularly for younger generations.
It's time for us to challenge this narrow definition of beauty. Working as both an artist and a commercial photographer gives me a great platform to help bring about some of that change. I want my images to be an antidote to what is currently being peddled. I want to create a photographic safe space for women, one that encourages a different experience of female beauty—an intellectual beauty. These are exciting times to be developing a new visual intelligence. The proliferation of images is what defines our era; image-making has gone viral. I would like my photographs to encourage a fresh way to communicate the narratives of our lives.
How does being a female photographer inform your relationship with the female subject?
I'm interested in empowering women through photography, which, since its inception, has been used to shape our idea of what it means to be female. Every day we see male photographers interpreting the inner thoughts of a female audience. I see the influence of brands exploiting a narrative of sex to make a quick buck. If it didn't make me so angry, I would laugh at its ineptitude. It's hard to imagine that any female photographer couldn't do a better job at interpreting the opposite sex. I see the objectification of women used to sell stuff everywhere. Young teens are hyper-sexualized, and older women are wiped off the face of our visual landscape. These are issues that I know and feel as a woman, and I address them in my work.
How did motherhood inform your work?
There was, and perhaps still is, an attitude in the art world that believes that once a female artist becomes a mother, she has lost her agency. Becoming a mother had enormous influence on my work. It opened my eyes to the power a still image has to creative a self-perception, especially in the young.
It was a challenge to bring work about motherhood into the contemporary art world. My exhibition "In the Company of Mothers" at the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery worked to address that. When you stop to investigate, apart from pictures of the Virgin Mary (perhaps the ultimate unachievable role model!) motherhood is not recognized or celebrated much in the art world. That seemed peculiar to me, considering how it has shaped all of us.
Mirrors and windows feature very regularly in your compositions. What do these offer the form and content of the photograph?
I love mirrors, windows, and reflections of any kind. They are like liquid in a still, two-dimensional representation of our three-dimensional world. Compositionally, they add a fourth dimension to the photograph and are a metaphor for reflection of the self, whether as self-reflection, narcissism, or just the desire to see oneself in the world. Outside of lens-based media, a mirror is the only other way we see ourselves placed within our environment. I completely understand the motivation of the selfie generation—it IS captivating. Selfies can be empowering if they come from the right place.
Are the women you photograph most often people you know, or are they strangers?
It can be either—whatever the picture needs. Sometimes I cast from agencies, sometimes I shoot friends, and most recently with the exhibition at Maureen Paley, strangers I chanced upon while shooting as a street photographer.
Does familiarity with the subject change the process for you?
I don't think so. I'm attracted to people who have an aura around them, a light that radiates from within. I look for this when casting. Whether it's an encounter with a stranger or someone familiar to me, the process is always the same. It's a collaborative process in which I talk through the issues I'm hoping to illustrate. Photography can be a very hierarchal and potentially exploitive process. I try to break down the hierarchy between photographer, subject, and viewer. Whilst shooting, we will look at the shots on the digital back together—I want my subjects to be happy with they way they are represented. I love this because it creates equality in the image-making process. I always learn so much from the other women's point of view, and together we make a picture. In a strange way we both feel rewarded by the encounter. In its most simple terms, I'm asking what it's like being you.
Your photographs are carefully staged. How much chance is involved?
Photography is a medium that is as much influenced by chance as it is by control. Some of my pictures are meticulously planned. Some of these take a different direction when reality takes over and certain scenarios just happen. Chance, luck, timing, and serendipity are very important to my relationship with photography. I love these factors because they are out of my control but more often than not play in my favor. They bring a certain energy to the picture. I'm humbled by this aspect of photography: its ability to transcend what's in front of the lens. It's a kind of magic.
Often your photographs feel like a paused moment in a film. Are you working with narrative intentions when you compose?
All my pictures are based in narrative. I think that's how humans are guided—by storytelling. I want my viewers to look for meaning in the narrative of my pictures. The picture has to be readable and easily accessible but also be able to reveal many possible narratives, often conjured up by the viewer's own experience.
The history of staged images has its earliest roots in painting. And your work very clearly brings to mind Edward Hopper. Do you think of your work in dialogue with painting?
I hadn't consciously thought about Hopper when I first started. It was only after comparisons had been drawn that I began to see the influence. In some way you could argue that Hopper has had the greatest influence on 20th-century photography. The vernacular of the everyday became the basis of modernism, out of which photography came. But let's remember it took a long time for photography to be considered worthy enough to even be in dialogue with painting. When I started, the general feeling was that photography wasn't art and women weren't photographers. In that respect, a question like this shows progress.
What kind of space do you want your photographs to occupy within the broader stream of visual culture?
To allow for a different representation of women, a safe pictorial space that is concerned with more than just surface. To puncture the endless stream of images that scream at us for our attention. My pictures are a slow burn, pauses that allow you to contemplate their meaning and relationship to the viewer.
I think my pictures speak to the individual in a quiet manner, but that said, they do still carry influence. I'm amazed to see that young female bloggers are still interested in photographs that I made from the very beginning, almost two decades ago. I think on some level they speak a different language. The language I've created is a hybrid of advertising, fashion, and art photography, so it's easily accessible to everyone.