Hannah Starkey

An exhibition of photographs that capture the heart and show the city in a hopeful light

Hannah Starkey has a knack for the emblematic image. Her c-type photographic prints represent moments of stillness or contemplation, usually featuring women, that manage to suggest much about the strangeness of urban space and the individual’s feeling of alienation within it.

And then, conversely, she finds a kind of poetry unfolding against rubble or built-up housing estates, in the lobbies of corporate buildings and slick marble waiting areas, at tables in greasy spoons and beside vending machines and graffitied walls. These visions of urban situations almost always find a figure in repose - waiting, wondering and typically solitary.

Starkey’s lens captures, for example, the moments when thought or reverie puncture the regimented round of bureaucratic efficiency: in one quietly compelling image a woman in a suit catches her reflection in an office window, cigarette in hand, butts all around her feet. She is an unremarkable, middle-aged woman and her face is caught only vaguely in the window – a cipher of the system on a fag break.

But there’s something about this moment that gives it the charge of symbolism, something that freights it with wider resonance. This is a moment of self-consciousness, a break in the routine of humdrum, unblinking automatic pilot.

Who is this woman and what is she thinking? Is she tired of the burden of time, of worry and taskmasters bossing her days? The viewer is drawn into the narrative, left wanting to know more. A well-constructed photograph can do this, drawing the eye irresistibly into a situation or landscape, demanding emotional investment.

'March 2002', which won the St James Group Ltd Photography Prize, is incredibly beautiful and shows Starkey, who hails from Belfast and has exhibited at the V&A and the Saatchi Gallery, at her best. It centrally draws the viewer’s attention to the slender back of a woman sitting in a deserted diner, her long grey hair loose and mussed; a wall painting of elaborately colourful fish swirls on the wall to her right, a doorway and automatic fan to her left.

The photograph has fluidity and Starkey’s recurring reverence for stillness. Who is the subject waiting for? The composition holds an ambiguous, suspenseful energy: the arrangement of objects in relation to the woman, the light, the camera angle – this elegant tension is a balancing act.

'Butterfly Catchers' shows two adolescent girls with nets among rubble (they play in wasteland rather than lush gardens) while 'Belfast Bone' (pictured above) shows two young girls linked arm in arm before a grey and uninspiring view of interlocking housing estates, a labyrinth of chimneys, cement and brick under the hills and overcast sky.

These are images of friendship and perhaps, of hope. However industrial ugliness colonises the land, however the sense of urban alienation intensifies, positive moments of human connection uplift, pull us out of the anonymous drift, illuminate the environment.

One of the most startling photographs – enigmatic, seductive and poignant all at once – shows a woman with a sleek black bob, head turned down, her face covered by hair, in one hand a cigarette, its smoke wafting in thin spirals towards the chandeliers. A prominent tattoo on the figure’s upper arm shows a sad-eyed little girl; this faceless woman is folded in on herself, deep in thought or bent low in sorrow.

Again, the same suspenseful energy, the same wonderfully perplexing ambiguity as captured in 'March 2002'. The image says something a sentence will uselessly try to pinpoint; the curve of her head, the languor in her arm, the spiralling smoke – it creates a mood of mystery and poignant calm.

Perhaps Starkey’s real achievement is to always avoid the clunky, masculine images of uber-industrial gloom so often used to characterise and dispense with the urban as the stifling centre of ugliness and enervation.

Instead she carefully discovers the subject, still and ponderous, transcending the sterility; these stolen moments of reflection seem almost religious and are triumphantly incongruous with the urban efficiency of the landscape.

Hannah Starkey runs at the Ormeau Baths Gallery Belfast until July 9.