Summary

Untitled – May 1997 is a large colour photograph depicting two women reflected in a long, rectangular mirror. This is set into the formica wall of the London café in which the women are sitting and fills nearly half the image, acting as a framing device for the scene being witnessed. The focal point of the picture is a moth, trapped on the mirror’s surface under the fingers of a dark haired young woman. She leans towards her reflection, apparently staring at the moth. The mirror reflects her face and the café interior behind her, which is illuminated by day-light coming in from large windows. At a table behind her, a middle-aged woman sits staring intently at her. Her blonde hair is wrapped around red curlers and she holds a coffee cup midway between the saucer and her mouth as though she has just drunk, or is just about to drink, from it. She is leaning into the picture, towards the young woman. In the foreground of the image, outside the mirror’s frame, a cup and saucer, a packet of Marlborough lights with a lighter lying on it, a half-drunk glass of orange juice and a line of typical café condiments appear casually arranged on the young woman’s table. Her elbow, leaning on the table surface, points out of the right side of the picture. The upper half of her body and her head are turned towards the reflection of her face gazing inscrutably at the trapped moth in and on the mirror. Behind her, a curved wooden window frame stretches up and out of the picture at its top right corner. Outside the window, parallel lines of red, white and grey, created by a bus passing, add to the geometric composition produced by the lines of the table top, the mirror’s edges and the architectural features of the café reflected in the mirror. Against the dominant muted beige, cream and flesh tones and the dark brown of the wooden window frames, red (in the older woman’s curlers, the ketchup dispenser on the table and outside the window) and blue (in the younger woman’s turquoise top and in the older woman’s jeans and denim shirt) are in harmonious balance.

Starkey was born and raised in Belfast. She graduated with an MA from the Royal College of Art, London in 1997. Untitled – May 1997 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 – May 1997 was produced in an edition of three plus two artist’s proofs.

Further reading:
Barry Schwabsky, ‘Hannah Starkey’, Artforum, September 1998, pp.142-3, reproduced (colour) p.142
Hannah Starkey, exhibition catalogue, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin 2000, [p.2], reproduced (colour) [p.5], pl.I
Sightings: New Photographic Art, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1998, [pp.42, 45 and 48], reproduced (colour) [pp.26-7]

Elizabeth Manchester
January 2003