Tom Hunter finds shrines from a disappearing world in Findings of Birmingham

By Culture24 Reporter | 09 May 2013

Exhibition preview: Findings, Church Street Square and St Paul's Square, Birmingham, until July 19 2013

A photo of a darkened underground room lit by sunlight through the windows
© Tom Hunter
Tutored at the Royal College of Art and the recipient of stacks of awards in between exhibitions and commissions for the National Portrait Gallery, the Saatchi Gallery, the V&A and the Royal Shakespeare Company among others, perhaps the only complaint about Tom Hunter’s career might be the rarity with which the imaginative photographer has been seen outside London.

His collusion with Grain, the Arts Council-funded West Midlands photography hub at the Library of Birmingham, is notable, then, for giving Hunter both an excursion outside of the capital and a chance to portray the second city in an entirely new early summer light.

Using a simple pinhole camera, Hunter has been on the loose around the sweep of listed buildings, industrial heritage sites, places of worship and public spaces around Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter and Colmore Business District.

According to Professor Chris O’Neil, the Executive Dean of the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, the results are “magic” and “revelatory”.

“The magic is in the transient and fleeting being fixed through time and in time,” he reckons, quoting pioneering early 20th century photographer Edward Steichen’s assertion that “no photographer is as good as the simplest camera.”

“The pinhole camera – the simplest of all cameras – has released Tom to reveal our city to eyes barraged by the digital.

“It has been stripped back to the essential by an artist whose vision, insight and sensitivity dominate. Serenity is revealed by the serene.”

Hunter’s works are being shown in a public arena not too far from the new Library of Birmingham, which will hold one of nine National Collections of Photography when it opens in September 2013.

Pete James, the venue’s Curator of Photographic Collections, believes the artist is following in the footsteps of the earliest members of the Birmingham Photographic Society, whose Norwich Union Cambers headquarters lay on the border of what is now the Business District.

“Tom’s decision to combine arcane equipment and modern materials reveals a number of fascinating resonances with the history of photography in Birmingham,” he says.

“The long exposures required by Hunter’s pinhole camera result in  impressionistic images saturated with colour and the atmospheric qualities of paintings.

“Hunter’s artistic ambitions were shared by an earlier generation of photographers, the Pictorialists, who experimented with chemical processes, printing techniques and pinhole photography in an effort to elevate photography to an art form in which overall aesthetic effect was more important than detail, around the turn of the 19th century.”

The artist himself says his quest has been to illuminate a document a “very special” place.

“For me, this project is a journey back into the country's industrial heritage and, at the same time, a personal journey into my own history,” he explains.

“Many of the buildings I have photographed so far are monuments to this industrial past, showing us the fingerprints of working lives and the products that these endeavors created and from them a way of life and culture.

“I have always been attracted to these shrines from a disappearing world – a world my grandfather was meshed to with his engineering company in Birmingham.

“It is a world I have explored through photography in Hackney Wick, where the industrial landscape became a playground for the dispossessed, and is now reincarnated as an Olympic wonderland.

“All these elements have aligned themselves in this photographic essay, connecting my history to my country's and Birmingham to Hackney.”

More pictures:

A photo of a table laid out in laboratory style within an underground dimly-lit room
© Tom Hunter
A photo of a dimly-lit auditorium
© Tom Hunter
A photo of a dark pub with the bar dimly lit by sunlight outside the windows
© Tom Hunter
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