Butterfly Catchers is a large, colour photograph of two teenage girls on a demolition site. They are viewed in the process of picking their way across a landscape of rubble which fills nearly half of the image. Behind them, nondescript industrial buildings dating from the early part of the twentieth century define the limits of the demolished site. Dark clouds over low hills in the distance confer an ominous atmosphere. A momentary break the clouds in the foreground of the image has resulted in white light shining off the roof of a nearby building and reflecting off metallic surfaces in the rubble. The girls, who face towards the camera, are backlit. Both appear preoccupied; their eyes are lowered as though they are scanning the terrain at their feet. A large net on a metal pole, which rests on the shoulder of the girl on the left, glints against the dark background clouds. The girl on the right holds a glass jar in her hand. A few scrubby weeds and grasses emerge from between fragments of bricks on the right side of the image. The location appears unlikely to be inhabited by butterflies; unsurprisingly none is visible. The photograph was shot in Belfast at the site of a former linen mill which, despite being of particular historical interest, was demolished to make way for a supermarket. The girls are adolescents recruited locally.
Starkey was born and raised in Belfast. She moved to London in 1996 to study at the Royal College of Art, graduating with an MA in 1997. She titled her degree show ‘Women watching Women’ and has been making staged, large-scale photographs of women since this time. Initially she used actresses, recruited from advertisements placed in the London amateur dramatics magazine, The Stage, and photographed them in urban locations in London. These are typically such ordinary, impersonal interiors as on a bus, in a pub, diner or café, but also include more intimate spaces inside people’s homes. More recently she has used outdoor spaces and recruited her subjects from the street. In 1999 and 2000 she extended her range of locations to include Belfast and Dublin. The photographs usually portray moments of lonely contemplation. The subjects are absorbed in private reverie, staring at themselves in a mirror, into space, out of a window, at a wall or at another woman. The moments depicted acquire a poetic significance beyond their unremarkable settings through the effects of light and the way the artist frames the image. These aestheticising techniques result in a cinematic atmosphere. Like the Untitled Film Stills produced by American artist Cindy Sherman (born 1954) in 1978-80, they appear to portray emotionally charged moments from a fictional film. Starkey’s images also recall the work of another American artist, Jeff Wall (born 1946), who has been making photographic transparencies depicting banal moments in the lives of ordinary Americans since the early 1980s. The large scale of both Wall and Starkey’s images heightens the sense that a monumental, although invisible, event has been recorded. In Starkey’s work the narratives suggested by scenery, accessories and women’s relationships to one another are deliberately ambiguous, leaving the viewer to imagine what this might be.
Starkey has spoken of her photographs as being ‘about memory – real, imagined. Longed for’ and, in relation to the body of work to which Butterfly Catchers belongs, as being generated by an interest in ‘the desires of childhood’ (quoted in Hannah Starkey, [p.3]).
Butterfly Catchers, combining female adolescence, butterflies and industrial demolition, evokes the vanitas tradition. Clad in tracksuit, trainers, jeans and a leather jacket, the girls have an ordinary tomboyish appearance which contrasts with the Romantic notions of transience, fragility, hopelessness and loss suggested by the wasteland location and the catching of butterflies. Starkey’s photographs are usually Untitled with the month and year in which the image was completed. The use of a more descriptive title in this instance emphasises the importance of the image of the butterfly, which is evoked but not visibly present. Made at the end of 1999, on the eve of the millennium, the photograph may also be read in connection to the expectation and uncertainty which characterised that time.
Butterfly Catchers was produced in an edition of five (plus one artist’s proof) of which this is the fourth.
The Citibank Photography Prize 2001, exhibition catalogue, Photographer’s Gallery, London 2001
Hannah Starkey, exhibition catalogue, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin 2000, reproduced in colour [p.10] pl. VI
Sightings: New Photographic Art, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1998