PRINT September 1998


So here’s the picture I fell in love with. A young woman sits alone in a coffee shop. It’s morning. Her cigarette pack, coffee cup, and half-empty glass of OJ lie on the table, but she’s not looking at them, or at the camera, either. Instead she looks back toward the mirror on the wall beside her. Oddly, she’s reaching out to touch her reflection. The café’s wall is curved, so the mirror is tipped down toward her. In it, we see not only the entranced face that’s turned aside but also the older woman who is also observing her from the table across the aisle.

What’s the girl looking at? Not at herself, as the fact of looking in a mirror might suggest, but at the tiny thing she’s caught with a finger on the mirror’s surface: a moth. It’s nearly the exact center of the image, and in fact the whole image seems to rotate around it—and I do mean rotate: the interaction of rectilinear and circular geometry gives this strangely still image its even more strangely fluid and unsettled inner structure. We usually think of actors (this is directorial-mode photography) moving around a set; this set seems to move around the actors. Through the window behind the girl a London bus can be seen passing; but somehow the rounded space of this interior is more reminiscent of a train’s dining car than an ordinary coffee shop.

At first there seem to be two levels to this image, which is dated May 1997 and which, like all of Hannah Starkey’s photographs, is untitled. First, a formal level constituted by a paradoxical geometry that spins instability out of a tight and complex structure, and also by the delicately articulated light that, more than simply filling the space, seems to be gently but firmly opening it up to the eye. Second, a social and incipiently narrative level involving the encounter or nonencounter between the two women, one young and one not so young, and the particular social space that contains it, through which a subtle tension is played out despite the obliviousness of at least one of the protagonists.

But there is a third level as well, one in which formal aspects and social facts are bound together into a fluid whole. Here, facts become entangled in an oneiric impossibility. For there is a strange mathematics at work, one unmoored from the daylight world the picture shows. Consider: there are three figures in the composition, though only two people in the picture. That we understand as part of the natural uncanniness of mirrors. But there really must be at least a third character in the room as well: the witness, the camera, whose destined surrogate is me, the viewer. And reason tells me to expect that the photographer, too—the person representing the eye observing this scene of one person observing another—should have been captured by the mirror in the image, a notion enhanced by the large scale of the photograph. Which is to say that this picture makes me feel that I, or my surrogate, should be part of it, even though the mirror proves that this is not so. The complex geometry of the shot puts an accent on the dead center of the image, the girl’s reflected face and the hand reaching for the moth, and because the girl faces the mirror at an angle perpendicular to the one at which the mirror faces me, I see her reflected face straight on, giving me the unshakable sensation that I ought to be seeing my own there too. I am the invisible and powerless spectator of a dream, which is why the central point in the image, the knot that ties everything together, is a nocturnal insect, though the utterly mundane scene takes place in broad daylight.

This dreamlike knitting together of an elaborate formal structure and an implicit social confrontation, enacted merely through the fact of looking, is a recurrent feature in the images of this Irish-born photographer currently living in London. Typically, two women, alone together yet separate, are shown in an enclosed, often mobile public space like a bus or train car. The viewer is put in the position—like one of the people in the picture—of being seduced into forming judgments without adequate basis. When I told Starkey that there seemed to be a difference of class as well as age between the two women in the photograph I’ve described, that the older woman looked working class to me, she good-naturedly pointed out that I don’t know a pricey cardigan when I see one. Since Starkey has worked as a fashion photographer, I’ll take her word for it.

“In the late ’90s you can produce a body of work about women that’s not particularly about women,” Starkey told me, but the question that always hovers around her images—do I identify or do I judge?—has a potentially feminist edge. She adds, matter-of-factly, “Women are just more interesting to look at,” which I take to mean that both men and women are more likely to project their own meanings onto the women they happen to see. But not all of her photographs deal so directly with looking as a social encounter. In an image dated February 1997, an elderly woman sits in a shadowy room, lit by a white-curtained window, looking at herself in a mirror (if Starkey is playing on John Szarkowski’s use of windows and mirrors as metaphorical terms for two distinct approaches to photography, her distinction between things seen in versus on a mirror gives the trope a further twist). The expression on the woman’s face is somehow one of consciousness, but consciousness of what? The teddy bear on the bed next to her—is she supposed to be thinking about childhood, her own or another’s? Or is that clue a tease? That’s the kind of question a photograph can’t answer for us. The image asks to be interpreted just because it withholds sufficient basis for interpretation. Out of such meanings, too obvious to be the right ones, Starkey constructs her mysteries.

Barry Schwabsky is a frequent contributor to Artforum.