June 2, 2007

Hannah Starkey: Simulated Self

Filed under: Simulation — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 8:09 am

Hannah Starkey, Untitled (October 1998), 1998. C-type print, 122 x 152 cm. Courtesy Saatchi Gallery.

Hannah Starkey’s work destablises the association of photography with realism evident in the discourses of photo-journalism and social realism which are such key players in the sphere of photography. One of the keystones of the discourse of photography as opposed the discourse of fine art is the claim to being an imprint of the real. The concept of capturing the moment this fundamental to so-called “straight photography”. Starkey’s work is of interest because it appears to be straight photography but isn’t. when we look at Starkey’s works we appear to be looking at moments captured from everyday life, in particular the everyday life of women. In fact Starkey’s photographs are constructed, the people we are looking at are actors. Her work is indebted to that of Cindy Sherman and to cinema due to its implementation of the notion of mise-en-scène. Moreover, it is possible to identify a narrative dimension to Starkey’s work; for example, Elizabeth Mahony notes that, like Sherman, Starkey’s photographs: ‘are not cosy images of a caring, sharing sisterhood of women. Starkey is superb on the dynamics between women, often … shaped by curiosity at best, envy, paranoia and competitiveness at worst. … loneliness, boredom and unreadable stares throughout’ (Mahony 1999).

Hannah Starkey, Untitled, May 1997, C-type print 161 x 123.5cm. Courtesy Maureen Paley/Interim Art

Another commentator suggests that Starkey’s work is more objective using a ‘vocabulary of codes and signs culled from contemporary urban culture’ and ‘fragments of a generic urban environment’ (Fisher 2003). But Starkey’s work is not simply an exercise in semiotics. Two deconstructive features destabilise the notion that her work is purely objective: firstly, the focus on women; and, secondly, the fact that her slices of everyday life are essentially fabrications. The suggestion that the fabricated nature of Starkey’s work connotes a level of fabrication within female interpersonal relationships is intriguing. But rather than thinking that this reflects some innate feature of the female psyche one can suggest that it is a characteristic of life within a late capitalist, urban environment. Fabrication of Starkey’s work introduces a coldness which is antithetical to the humanism inherent in social realist photography.

One can compare Starkey’s approach with the Dusseldorf School photography that begins with Hans and Hilla Becher’s taxonomic photography and is continued in the flat objectivity of Thomas Ruff, Thomas Demand and Andreas Gursky. Such photography puts forward a lack of emotion as the essence of modern and postmodern existence. This notion is quite widespread, for example, the Italian art critic Germano Celant has put forward the notion of ‘unexpressionism’ as a key feature of postmodernity (Celant 1988).

Hannah Starkey, Untitled (September 1999), 1999. C-type print, 122 x 152 cm. Courtesy Saatchi Gallery.

This is not to say, however, that Starkey’s work can be reduced to the influence of the Dusseldorf School. Her work is more complex, in particular, she has superimposed the unexpressionism of the Dusseldorf School onto the much broader discourse of social realism. More than that, social realism is not simply a genre of photography it is an intrinsic feature of photography. It is arguably the most important feature of photography because it functions as a social mirror, it shows us the truth about ourselves. Contrast this with the work of Thomas Demand who selects an image he finds a newspaper or magazine and meticulously reconstructs the scene portrayed in his studio using craft card. He then photographs the construction and presents a blowup colour photograph mounted in between glossy acrylic sheets as the final product. Demand’s work is highly simulacral in the Baudrillardian sense which suggests that our physical environment is becoming increasingly artificial. The difference between Demand’s work and that of Starkey is that Demand focuses on things whereas Starkey focuses on people. But the simulacral thesis still remains shifting into the theoretical space of alienation and anomie.

Three features of Starkey’s work are of interest: firstly, her concern with female identity; secondly, the fabricated nature of her work; and thirdly the mise-en-scène she chooses which can be characterised as urban ‘non-places’, which is to say spaces of transition and alienation.


Celant, Germano. 1988. Unexpressionism: art beyond the contemporary. New York: Rizzoli International Publications.

Fisher, Elizabeth. 2003. ‘Hannah Starkey’ in Sodium Dreams, an exhibition curated by Elizabeth Fisher at the Center for curatorial studies and art in contemporary culture, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, 29 June-7 September. Online resource accessed April 2007:

Mahony, Elizabeth. 1999. Life As We Know It? The Independent. London. 4 May. Online version accessed March 2007:

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