Photographer Hannah Starkey: ‘I want to create a space for women without judgment’

For more than 20 years the Belfast-born artist’s cleverly constructed portraits have captured the gestures of everyday female experience – and tried to find new ways of seeing women

• See a gallery of Hannah Starkey’s photography

‘When I first started out, photography was very male and not really considered art,” says Hannah Starkey. “I didn’t set out to have a feminist agenda, it was more that my interest in making work about women comes from the simple fact that I am one. That commonality of experience is at the heart of what I do as an artist.”

Now 47, Starkey has been making images of ordinary women for more than 20 years, her complex, cleverly choreographed portraits blurring the lines between portraiture, documentary and staging. A new book, Photographs 1997-2017, is a selective survey of an artistic career that started in spectacular fashion when her MA show in 1998 caused quite a stir in the London art world and has since settled into a quiet, consistently attentive exploration of female experience that also implicitly questions how women are represented elsewhere in our profligate image culture.

Though her photographs appear at first glance to be traditional observational documentary, they are deftly choreographed. Often she reimagines what she has observed on the street or in cafes, clubs and bars, using women she has hired to meticulously create stilled moments of female reverie, togetherness or fleeting interaction. The results are both truthful and artfully constructed, capturing the small gestures and glances of everyday experience while also subverting traditional notions of documentary and street photography.

Clouds, September 2015, by Hannah Starkey.
Clouds, September 2015, by Hannah Starkey. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

“In the beginning, I wanted to create a hybrid out of the different approaches I had been taught,” she says, “by somehow bringing together the emotive language of documentary with the slickness of advertising and the observational style of street photography. I think I’ve become more reflective and considered, but the performative element has been a constant.”

Having “wandered into” photography via a vocational course at Napier University in Edinburgh, Belfast-born Starkey went on to study for an MA at the Royal College of Art. There she found her subject and her hybrid style, influenced, she says, by Peter Galassi’s book, Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort, which laid bare the anxieties at the heart of the American ideal of home through images by the likes of Nan Goldin, William Eggleston and Cindy Sherman. Her MA show featured seven large-format photographs of young women interacting, their style and compositional skill self-consciously referencing both classical painting and elaborate film stills. It caught the attention of London gallerist Maureen Paley, who left a note for her at the college and has represented her ever since.

‘Pussy power’, Women’s March, London 2017, by Hannah Starkey
‘Pussy power’, Women’s March, London 2017, by Hannah Starkey. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and MACK

“That graduate show set me up,” says Starkey. “Suddenly I was in demand and simultaneously I became very aware of the different space that women occupy in the photography world, both as practitioners and subjects. I have been acutely aware of that ever since, the ways in which women are constantly evaluated and judged. My gaze is not directed in that way. A lot of what I do is about creating a different level of engagement with women, a different space for them without that judgment or scrutiny.”

With two teenage daughters of her own, she is concerned about the tyranny of selfie culture and the ways in which young women are “being targeted much earlier as consumers and told constantly that their value is in their looks”. At the same time she is inspired by how younger female photographers are making their presence felt. “It just feels like things are opening up because so many young women are expressing themselves through photography.”

Untitled, September 2006, by Hannah Starkey
Untitled, September 2006, by Hannah Starkey. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and MACK

Though Starkey has always been an implicitly political artist, the concluding series in the book – images of protesters at the Women’s March in London, 2017 – is the closest she has come to more overtly activist photography. Here, too, the images have been created using technological post-production, allowing her to distil the experience of the protest into more formally constructed photographs. She is, she acknowledges in the afterword to the book, “interested in the psychological truth more than the photographic truth.” That, perhaps, is the essence of her hybrid way of seeing.

Photographs 1997–2017 by Hannah Starkey is out now (Mack, £40). Starkey will give an artist’s talk and sign books at Tate Modern, London, on Wednesday


Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Photographer Susan Meiselas on documenting women’s refuges
The revered Magnum photojournalist worked with shelter residents on a new book, A Room of Their Own

Rachel Cooke

21, May, 2017 @8:30 AM

Article image
Pregnant in the field: have trowel, will travel
An archaeologist gave birth to a new photographic genre by asking fellow scientists to post snaps of themselves digging while expecting

Imogen Carter

01, Jul, 2017 @5:00 PM

Article image
The big picture: ​Hannah Starkey reflects on young women
The Belfast-born artist’s female portraits ​depict private moments away from the male gaze

Tim Adams

09, Oct, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
A new Scumb Manifesto: the woman who’s reworking the photography canon
Photographer Justine Kurland has sliced and collaged images from 150 renowned books by white male photographers from Brassaï to Stephen Shore. She explains why

Sean O’Hagan

23, Apr, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Caroline Criado Perez: How I put a suffragist in Parliament Square
She got hate mail for putting Jane Austen on our banknotes. Now, the activist has put a statue of Millicent Fawcett in central London

Nicci Gerrard

15, Apr, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Meet Amsterdam’s official pet photographer
Isabella Rozendaal realised there was something missing from Amsterdam’s population archive. She tells of her life – and new book – as the city’s first official pet portraitist

• See a gallery of Isabella Rozendaal’s photographs

Alex Moshakis

17, Nov, 2018 @7:00 PM

Article image
The female boxers fighting back in the Congo
Photographer Alessandro Grassani is documenting the women of Goma who have taken up boxing for self-defence

Killian Fox

14, Apr, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
Photographer Pat Martin: ‘Mom was not an easy subject’
The American winner of the 2019 Taylor Wessing portrait prize tells the story behind his extraordinary portraits of his troubled mother

Sean O’Hagan

17, Nov, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
Why photographer Eddie Otchere swapped drum’n’bass for rural idylls
Best known for his portraits of DJs and rappers, the London snapper found new inspiration in the South Downs

Killian Fox

02, Sep, 2018 @8:30 AM

Article image
The quiet brilliance of Magnum photographer Inge Morath
From escaping Nazi Germany to marrying playwright Arthur Miller, her life was almost as extraordinary as her images

Sarah Crompton

23, Nov, 2018 @7:00 AM