I need to believe: ‘Prayer Places’ by Tom Hunter.
The photographs are made with a pinhole camera. This is a square wooden box without a lens but with a small hole at one end which allows light to be channeled onto, in the case of this particular pinhole camera, a sheet of large format colour transparency film held at the back of the camera. Tom Hunter uses the positive to make prints.
Tom Hunter’s choice to make these photographs with a pinhole camera is critical. It has implications on various levels not only for the construction of the image but also the construction of meaning or interpretation around the image. The pinhole camera is an arcane technology. The most rudimentary of interventions with allusions to the pre and early history of photography and also the artistic ambitions of the Pictorialists. Its use by Hunter might be thought of as subversive in a contemporary era where photography no longer needs to prove itself an an art, an era dominated by digital technologies. Antiquated, though far from naive, since the 1960s and 70s the pinhole technique was revived by photographers who were consciously interested in pursuing ‘alternative’ methodologies and processes.
The pinhole camera has no shutter. It makes no sound. Its mechanism; the action of light ‘seeping in’ has the quality of absorbing not grabbing. Most of the exposures were made by the photographer working on his own, sliding back the cover on his simple apparatus, the box camera made by a friend. Then would begin the counting in his head, sometimes to sixty, sometimes on and on into thousands of seconds, half an hour.
Tom Hunter’s ‘Prayer Places’ raise questions such as is there a quality of mysticism or spirituality shared by all of these spaces despite the difference of religious belief that is inherent to their use? We can easily note the differences in layout and decoration between each. A restraint and functionality in one, the ornate details of another, the intimacy of a small chapel, a larger more imposing architecture of a synagogue or mosque. Each is a place of worship, but is it possible for the camera to capture a shared or embedded atmosphere beyond particular symbols such as a crucifix, an alter or a mihrab? Is it possible to photograph faith?
They also make me think about what a church is. How do they exist outside ritual, once a congregation, the community that defines and activates them, have left? Or perhaps they are not empty after all. Tom Hunter’s pictures are physically without worshipers, but could there be something of the residue of prayer picked up as tangibly as light seeping into his camera? There is a softness to the images, particularly around the rounded edges of each frame which comes from the pinhole technique but which also gives the images the assumed quality of a religious or ecstatic vision. This again relates Tom Hunter’s ongoing interest in Renaissance art where for instance, a painting by Caravaggio would hang in a church and itself becomes an object of devotion and inspiration. The circular inclination of these images is inviting, and it seems to me in standing before his images Tom Hunter wishes us to forget our worldly troubles and concerns and enter each place of worship with him. His photographs encourage contemplation though one is not in the physical space itself.
I do not know if Tom Hunter is religious but as he describes the process of making these photographs to me I cannot help but think of each exposure as akin to his own prayer – a mantra, a rosary, a wish. I also cannot help but think of why and when we most often need prayer. Moments of fear and doubt; moments when we need something to hold onto. Ambiguity of faith is an interesting proposition in relation to the function and operation of photography. Religious belief is not predicated on rational or physical proof, the notion of true faith requires no evidence. Yet Tom Hunter’s prayers manifest an image and so to me, if I consider them in this light, they have the nature of a hope, a wanting, that to be able to see is to believe. Tom Hunter’s is a human faith not a metaphysical ideal.
—Magdalene Keaney is Curator of the Fashion Space Gallery at London College of Fashion.