Elements of contrivance in the photography of Hannah Starkey, Tom Hunter, Taryn Simon and Philip-Lorca DiCorcia

The course notes draw the student’s attention to the work of four photographers who work in the tableaux genre:-

  • Hannah Starkey
  • Tom Hunter (specifically Living in hell)
  • Taryn Simon (specifically The innocents)
  • Philip-Lorca DiCorcia (specifically Hustlers)

All four photographers use elements of contrivance to a greater or lesser degree in order to create photographs that are, more or less, complete fictions.

Hannah Starkey

Hannah Starkey uses actors, usually women, to recreate ‘staged’ mundane scenes from everyday life.

“Using actors within carefully considered settings, Hannah Starkey’s photographs reconstruct scenes from everyday life with the concentrated stylisation of film. Starkey’s images picture women engaged in regular routines such as loitering in the street, sitting in cafes, or passively shopping. Starkey captures these generic ‘in between’ moments of daily life with a sense of relational detachment. Her still images operate as discomforting ‘pauses’; where the banality of existence is freeze-framed in crisis point, creating reflective instances of inner contemplation, isolation, and conflicting emotion.
Through the staging of her scenes, Starkey’s images evoke suggestive narratives through their appropriation of cultural templates: issues of class, race, gender, and identity are implied through the physical appearance of her models or places. Adopting the devices of filmography, Starkey’s images are intensified with a pervasive voyeuristic intrusion, framing moments of intimacy for unapologetic consumption. Starkey often uses composition to heighten this sense of personal and emotional disconnection, with arrangements of lone figures separated from a group, or segregated with metaphoric physical divides such as tables or mirrors.
Often titling her work as Untitled, followed by a generalised date of creation, her photographs parallel the interconnected vagueness of memory, recalling suggestions of events and emotions without fixed location or context. Her work presents a platform where fiction and reality are blurred, illustrating the gap between personal fragility and social construction, and merging the experiences of strangers with our own.”
(Saatchi Gallery, 2022)

There is a very interesting video here, where Starkey talks about her perspective on focusing on women, seeing women as ‘heroic’.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find that the work really resonated with me – there was no warmth to the images and the mundane settings I just didn’t find engaging because there seemed to be no reason for taking such photographs.

Tom Hunter

Tom Hunter bases his work Living in Hell around newspaper headlines from the Hackney Gazette and seeks to photographically create the ‘scene’ of the events that are featured. He does so in such a way as to mirror the compositions of some of the great masters of painting, to which he obviously pays homage.

A good example of this is his photograph Woman reading a possession order and its clear homage to Vermeer’s Girl reading a letter at an open window.

I really enjoyed these images of ‘crime scenes’ despite the gruesome nature of the crimes; the references to classical art reminds us that the subjects referenced are as old as humanity itself – assault, murder, rape, destitution, prostitution etc. He also touches something visceral, for when we (I!) read such headlines, we often cannot help but create an imaginary visualisation of what it might have been like… we scare ourselves with our imaginary scenarios. Hunter brings that imagination to life and seems to say to us / show us: ‘This is what it was like’.

Because of the reference to news headlines, Hunter expands upon an already partly-made narrative – we know ‘what happened’, but his photographs invite us to speculate about the back-story (and the forward-story for that matter) – we ask ourselves ‘why was she walking through the park late at night?’, ‘why did she open the door to strangers?, why did that thug attack a priest?’, but also, ‘what happened to these people afterwards?’

This invites not just an analytical, critical dissection (deconstruction) of the images, but entire fictions that could be based around them.

Moreover, in constructing the scenes and posing the actors (Hunter’s friends and neighbours), Hunter is doing what those painters did too – using backdrops and models (and then painting them). Hunter gives us a photographic equivalent.

What struck me about Hunter’s images is that despite their subject matter, there is a great warmth in them – even Living in hell – the title picture of the series, which shows an elderly woman living is squalor, is lit with warm yellows, oranges and reds.

Perhaps part of the appeal of Hunter’s work for me is that I spent my late teens and early twenties living in the east end of London – in accommodation not too dissimilar to those he depicts in his series The ghetto. Through his photography, he gives a voice to people who, in mainstream culture, tend to be overlooked.

Taryn Simon

There are similarities between Hunter’s work and that of Simon who, in her series The innocents, photographs people who have been wrongly convicted (and imprisoned). In that sense, her ‘subjects’ are also the dispossessed and downtrodden. The ‘crime’ theme also links the two photographers:

“The Innocents (2000–2003) documents the stories of individuals who served time in prison for violent crimes they did not commit. At issue is the question of photography’s function as a credible eyewitness and arbiter of justice.

A primary cause of wrongful conviction is mistaken identification. A victim or eyewitness identifies a suspect through law enforcement’s use of photographs and lineups. These identifications rely on the assumption of precise visual memory. But through exposure to composite sketches, mugshots, Polaroids, and lineups, eyewitness memory can change. In these cases, photography offered the criminal legal system a tool that assisted officers in obtaining erroneous eyewitness identifications and aided prosecutors in securing convictions.

Simon photographed each person at a site that came to assume particular significance following their wrongful conviction: the scene of misidentification, the scene of arrest, the alibi location, the scene of the crime. In the history of these legal cases, these locations have been assigned contradictory meanings. The scene of arrest marks the starting point of a reality based in fiction. The scene of the crime is at once arbitrary and crucial—a place that changed their lives forever, but to which they had never been. In these photographs, Simon confronts photography’s ability to blur truth and fiction—an ambiguity that can have severe, even lethal consequences.” (Simon, 2022)

The idea of blurring truth and fiction appeals to me, but in Simon’s work, it is used to make a forceful and emotive point about wrongful imprisonment. The documentary video at the end of the series is painfully moving – quietly devastating in fact.

Simon’s location and characters are real, so these are not purely tableaux images in the way that Hunter’s or Wall’s are. In this sense, she has more in common with Starkey.

There is a fascinating TED talk where Simon discusses two bodies of work, including The innocents here.

Philip-Lorca DiCorcia

In DiCorcia’s series Hustlers, the photographer hired male prostitutes, took them to pre-prepared, contrived locations and photographed them.

Like Hunter, DiCorcia’s ‘models’ are outsiders. Contrasting his work with that of the portraits of Diane Arbus (who often spent a great deal of time getting to know her subjects), DiCorcia disavows such intimacy: “In the “Hustlers” series, portraying the prostitute in full psychological armor was part of the project. The vacuous expressions on the faces create a feeling of rudderless, dispirited anomie that was emblematic of the larger society.”

One of the most disconcerting (and emotional) aspect of DiCorcia’s series is the price paid for the prostitute which is a key element of each title. This highlights the commodification of these people. However, unlike Hunter, I can detect little or no warmth or sympathy in the images themselves.

Apparently DiCorcia did not direct the models in any way so there is less contrivance than in some of the other photographer’s discussed in this post.

Final thoughts

I enjoyed looking at and reading about the work of these four photographers and although I didn’t necessary ‘like’ all the work, I did really connect with the work of Hunter (I bought the book!) and Simon, partly because of the empathy shown in the pictures and the sheer artistry of Hunter.

As the course notes say: “Much of the success of these works comes from their ability to replicate a real moment in time when in fact they were fabricated with utmost care. The use of large format cameras and the perfection of the formal aspects of the pictures (colour, composition, lighting, expressions, etc.) enable the photographers to achieve a successful outcome, both visually and conceptually.” (Course notes)


Artnet (2022) Hannah Starkey At: http://www.artnet.com/artists/hannah-starkey/ (Accessed 11/3/2022)

Hunter, T. (2022) Living in hell At: http://www.tomhunter.org/living-in-hell-and-other-stories/ (Accessed 11/3/2022)

Hunter, T. (2006) Living in hell. London: National Gallery

Hunter, T. (2022) Tom Hunter At: http://www.tomhunter.org/gallery/ (Accessed 11/3/2022)

Lubow, A. (2013) ‘Real people, contrived settings’ in The New York Times 23/8/2013 At: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/25/arts/design/philip-lorca-dicorcias-hustlers-return-to-new-york.html (Accessed 11/3/2022)

Saatchi Gallery (2022) Hannah Starkey At https://www.saatchigallery.com/artist/hannah_starkey (Accessed 7/3/2022)

Simon, T. (2022) The innocents At: http://tarynsimon.com/works/innocents/#1 (Accessed 11/3/2022)

Simon, T. (2022) Photographs at secret sites At: https://www.ted.com/talks/taryn_simon_photographs_of_secret_sites?language=en (Accessed 11/3/2022)

Tate (2022) Hannah Starkey: ‘This is an important moment for women’ At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/hannah-starkey-2683/hannah-starkey-important-moment-women (Accessed 11/3/2022)

One comment

  1. The Saatchi Gallery piece on Starkey’s work is prime art waffle. However, I like some of her images. Her resort to the ‘concentrated stylisation of film’ reminds me of Antonioni’s celebrated ‘alienation trilogy’.


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