The women in Hannah Starkey’s photographs don’t much care that you’re looking at them – they have more important things to think about. Starkey catches them in moments of reverie or reflection: quiet episodes in a busy world.
A woman gazes idly at her reflection in a stark office window while she takes a cigarette break. In a red dress, a newsroom interviewee clutches fretfully at her necklace while she waits to bear testament. A teenage girl on a sofa surrounded by party debris gazes at her friend, dozing on the sofa with a half-drunk pint still in her hand.
For 25 years the Belfast-born photographer has trained her camera on female subjects. Laid out over the galleries of Hepworth Wakefield for the exhibition In Real Life, Starkey’s subjects chart the artist’s own growing maturity, from her early shots of girls hanging out in Northern Ireland, through visions of how to be a woman in the ladette era of the late 1990s, to explorations of young motherhood, and older female power. Starkey admits “the work is part autobiographical: it’s what I experienced, as a female artist, as a photographer and as a woman in the world at different points of my life.”
We’re talking over video. Starkey is recovering from a cold and joins me from her London studio, bolstered by Lemsip and coffee. In Real Life and the accompanying book were both supported by the Freeland Award, which Starkey won in 2019. This prize for mid-career female artists, acknowledging many who have been overlooked or taken time away to raise a family, is increasingly influential in the British art landscape. (Two nominees on last year’s Turner Prize shortlist, including winner Veronica Ryan, were recent Freelands Award recipients.)
Starkey prints her photographs at the grand scale of Victorian narrative paintings. “The idea is that the image would envelop you,” she tells me. “Your eye is travelling around the image, rather than taking everything in. I think it widens your experience, having an image so big, rather than seeing something on a smartphone screen.” She’s right – encountering these works in a gallery is very different from seeing them on screen or in a book. You read them more as you would a human encounter, one on one. There are whole stories hidden in these still images.
With a few exceptions (we’ll come to those later) Starkey’s images are staged. Walking through the city, she scouts locations ripe with potential, and approaches women she knows or has spotted in public. “I have a picture in my head that articulates something, and then I go out in the world and find it,” she says.
As well as her staged portraits, there is a smaller display of recent photographs of women participating in protests – the 2017 Women’s March and Extinction Rebellion among them. These striking images, which hover closer to documentary work, complement Starkey’s ongoing exploration of how to be a woman – they are pictures of sisterhood, strength and rebel spirit. The recent timing is not coincidental: Starkey sees the dominant image culture of our present moment as more damaging to women and girls than it was when she started pushing back from within the world of fashion and advertising photography in the 1990s.
“I guess with each generation of feminism, we have different issues. In the 90s, I felt it was important that women weren’t kept captive by this archetypal image of what it meant to be female,” she recalls. “As a woman in the 90s, I really did feel that I didn’t have to play any of these games. I just had to be me.” Watching her daughters grow up in the era of Instagram and online porn, she has become deeply concerned about the impact of inescapable “perfection” – manipulated and manufactured images, plastic surgery, and the expectation that you should be camera-ready at all times. “Girls are smart – I don’t know why we’re all so susceptible to this. Maybe we don’t stand a chance because it’s 24/7. It’s subliminal.”
Playing with your looks, your identity, “used to be fun”, she says. “Now it seems to be extreme.” Teenagers see models on billboard adverts with breasts like porn stars. Girls dream of the day they can afford a nose job. “What’s expected of them at that age is really hard,” says Starkey. “They have been so commercialised.”
In the run up to the show, Starkey worked with a group of young women from Wakefield, who collaborated with her on the photographs in the final gallery. “This message is all over the world, whether it’s the United States or Wakefield,” she says. “The tyranny of beauty and evaluating yourself, of not living up to this ideal, erodes confidence.” One of the reasons so few women in Starkey’s photographs are seen smiling or facing the lens is because she wants to challenge the idea that we should perform for the camera, that as women we should always imagine ourselves to be observed, on show.
She worries a lot about mental health. One recent work restages a photograph taken in 1998, of a young woman gazing out of a café window. The big difference in the new work, only visible as you come close and take in the detail, are the scars crisscrossing the woman’s arm. “As a woman in my 50s, looking at women in their 20s – I never used to see silver lines, never used to see self-harm in the way that I see it now. The frequency of what I’m seeing now really bothers me – because that’s pain.”
In Real Life is also full of joy and beauty: candy-coloured cake shops, silky chignons of grey hair, images broken up into jewel-like fragments. In one of the most striking photographs a young woman with magenta hair in full manga costume strides up a street in Belfast beneath a sky near black with the weight of a coming storm. Flanking her, on the gable ends of the terraces, are familiar murals honouring those who died fighting for paramilitary organisations.
“Growing up in Belfast, it felt like a very patriarchal, heavy environment,” Starkey recalls. “I was thinking about what it means to grow up as a young woman in Belfast now, because the paramilitaries are still very much in operation. I wanted to make a picture where there was an element that totally contradicted that narrative in that landscape.”
She encountered the young woman in a vintage shop (“secondhand shops are like my second home – it’s where I love to be when I’m looking for inspiration”) and was struck by the cartoonish, almost paper doll vision of femininity in her fluffy pastel outfit. Starkey asked if she’d consider being in a photograph.
The next day the two went out and tried a few locations. Nothing seemed to click, then suddenly the sky went dark – a weight hovering above the lightness of this young girl: “It is potentially one of the most cliched images I’ve ever made because it’s a mural in Belfast. But there was something that drew me to that – that was the picture.”
Hannah Starkey: In Real Life at The Hepworth Wakefield is on until 30 April