Untitled – March 1999 is a large colour photograph depicting two women reflected in a mirror in a public lavatory. Starkey has used the long, rectangular mirror as a framing device, within which several levels of reflection are contained. It fills half the photograph, its shiny, white frame constituting a second picture frame. On either side of it, the white tiled wall extends out of the image. A white strip light runs along its upper edge. Below the mirror, the tiled wall stretches down to white skirting board and dark carpet. A long, narrow shelf just under the mirror cuts diagonally across the photograph. Upholstered stools in front of it, in the foreground of the image, provide perches for women while they refresh their makeup in front of the mirror. On the left, a woman’s knees and arm reach into the image. In her hand is a lighter, gripped uncomfortably alight. Tension in the hand and wrist hint at turbulence behind the apparently ordinary scene. Reflected in the mirror, her face is visible staring moodily down at the lighter, which not visible in the reflection. Behind her, to the right, a blonde girl stands in front of a row of four basins and four square mirrors. Her hands above her head, she clasps her hair in order to pin it up. Her hair clip is visible hanging out of her mouth in another reflection of her, in one of the square mirrors. A second reflection of the tawny-haired woman playing with the lighter has been artfully captured in the space between the two reflections of the blonde. Further reflections of the blonde girl appear in another of the square mirrors next to her, bouncing back and forth from square mirror to the rectangular mirror behind her. To her right, her handbag sits on the shelf between two basins. Two circular lights on the ceiling in front of her reflect off the wall’s green tiles. A row of lavatory cubicles stretches into the background on the left of the image, behind the seated woman. Their parallel doorways contribute to the geometric composition of repeated squares and rectangles provided by mirrors, basins, tiles and architectural features. A condom or tampon dispenser reflected in another square mirror displays an ‘out of order’ sign.
Starkey was born and raised in Belfast. She graduated with an MA from the Royal College of Art, London in 1997. Untitled – May 1997 (Tate P78246) was one of the works she exhibited in her degree show, which she titled ‘Women watching Women’. She advertised for actresses in the London amateur dramatics magazine, The Stage, and photographed them in urban locations selected in London. These are typically such ordinary, impersonal interiors as on a bus, in a pub, diner or café, but also include the more intimate spaces inside people’s homes. More recently she has used outdoor spaces and culled her subjects from the street. Starkey’s images of the late 1990s 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 Starkey’s careful lighting and framing of her images. 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. The photographs are all Untitled with the month and year in which the image was completed. The use of a date in the title provides another potential clue to the mystery of the image, which however, remains impenetrable. Emptied of unnecessary detail, the images evoke moments of social encounter in urban life which result not in connection with another but in an emphasis of ultimate individual isolation.
Untitled – March 1999 was produced in an edition of five (plus one artist’s proof), of which this is the fifth.
I Am a Camera, London 2001, p.v and [pp.413-20], reproduced (colour) [p.415], pl.291
The Citibank Photography Prize 2001, exhibition catalogue, Photographer’s Gallery, London 2001, pp.113-36, reproduced (colour) p.115
Hannah Starkey, exhibition catalogue, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin 2000