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Picturing women by Hannah Starkey

Hannah Starkey has been photographing women for more than twenty years and a new photobook celebrates her work and her success in presenting an alternative to what passes for femininity in glossy magazines.


Photo courtesy of the artist and MACK

Sean Sheehan


Starkey was born in Northern Ireland in 1971, completed a degree in Photography, Film and Television in Scotland and moved to London for post-graduate study.

The first time her photographs were seen by the public was in the late 1990s and the critical acclaim that followed must have taken her by surprise.

She was embraced by progressive figures in the world of fashion and lifestyle magazines and commissions for new work soon arrived.

Over the two decades since her initial success, Starkey has remained faithful to her core aesthetic: portraying women as protagonists in their own lives despite being situated within a patriarchal world that would commoditise their female bodies.

Her early pictures were overtly constructed scenarios, choreographed representations of fictional, unspecified moments that pertain to the experience of being a woman.

Being staged mises en scène, using hired actors, the photos are not documentary in the usual sense of the word although they are based on Starkey’s own observations of women in different modes of being: from solitary reflection to interaction with others.

Photo courtesy of the artist and MACK

Over the last decade, the desire to capture interiority remains undiminished but her method of working has changed.

Now a mother of two daughters and living in London, she finds herself pointing out women to them in the street – “Gosh’, she’ll go, she looks good” – because of “something about her self-confidence, not necessarily her visual attraction, but her energy, that you just want to capture.”

Women are approached on the street and Starkey explains why, showing them her work on her smartphone so that, if they wish, they can consciously feel part of a collaborative project.

Then she gets to work on configuring her pictures, using digital technology to create, stylise  finesse an image that eventually emerges as the finished work. She compares what she is doing to a painter working on a canvas: “The picture I want is in parts and I piece them together in my mind’s eye. Technology allows me to translate it into a final image.”

Starkey works to create empathy and stimulate thought by allowing her pictures to suggest possible narratives.

Photo courtesy of the artist and MACK

They contain visual hints that point to considerations of class and gender; identity is at stake and race also comes into this. They are like paintings in their classical regard for composition but also like stills from a film with a contemporary setting. Women – middle-aged as well as young – are seen in a pub, a café, a place of work and emotions, subdued but present, are in play.

This superbly produced book is eloquent testimony to Starkey’s challenge to the power of images that misrepresent the experience of being a woman.

In her own words: “We mustn’t be stuck with the myopic visual language devised by grey, middle-aged white men who think far too much of themselves.”

“Hannah Starkey: Photographs 1997-2017” is published by MACK


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