Hannah Starkey, Untitled, March 2022, C-print, 48 × 64 1⁄8".

Hannah Starkey, Untitled, March 2022, C-print, 48 × 64 1⁄8".

Hannah Starkey

Wakefield is a famously friendly place. Hannah Starkey’s close personal involvement with the city began with a post-lockdown residency during which she produced photographs that intimately document the lives of local teenage girls in the city’s favorite venues. Wakey Tavern, 2022, an image emanating working-class warmth and resilience, documents some of her relationships from this experience: Four young women sit at a greasy spoon café, with a classic English pub—whose name is an affectionate reference to the town—closed, boarded up, and visible through the window in the background. Navigating Wakefield’s streets on my way back from the exhibition, I found myself standing in the location pictured, attempting to triangulate the view in real time and mulling over the pub’s rumored takeover by mega-chain Wetherspoons and the impact of Starkey’s activism in the city.

By contrast, the majority of Starkey’s staged portraits of women she has encountered in various locations in the UK portray her subjects absorbed in solitary activities. These images can be termed documentary fictions, not unlike those of Bill Brandt, but with a third- or fourth-wave feminist twist. As with Brandt’s work, Starkey’s images comprise highly composed scenarios, adroitly emotive cinematic mise-en-scènes—a hybrid of street art and contemporary art photography that restages everyday events to imply psychological truth rather than photographic fact.

Untitled, May 1997 is the most iconic in its feigned vulnerability. In a different café—like Edward Hopper, Starkey is attracted to such settings where people can be alone in public—a woman stares into a mirror, watched by her bemused older counterpart, while a London bus flashes past. Operating both on the minor dramatic register of the film still and on the major level of narrative painting, this early image is typical of those that would follow. Taken over a twenty-five-year period, starting when the Belfast-born artist moved to London, the images in the show provide a personal vista onto a quarter century of UK history, from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to the post-Brexit era, as witnessed in Untitled, May 2022, where a young woman rushes past sectarian murals in Northern Ireland. Tellingly, Starkey claims to have been at every UK-based protest related to women since 2018 after attending the previous year’s worldwide Women’s March, which took place the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump.

Starkey’s new activism is reflected in a significant shift in her work from theatrically absorbed self-reflection to protest, specifically around #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and the environmental crisis, all of which have been incorporated as issues alongside wider gender equality. ‘Pussy power’, Women’s March, London 2017, for example, uses bathos and humility to demonstrate strength, with a lone middle-aged woman standing confidently between two pink placards inscribed PUSSY POWER and WE SHALL OVER COMB.

Starkey’s feminist perspective on mainstream political events and patriarchal constructs emerges through a portrayal of female introspection that avoids depicting women as insular and melancholy. Alongside the works’ fragmented historical narratives, which show individuals living their lives during world political moments, the images suggest an erosion of the self or psyche connected to the emotional impact of new technologies on young people, such as those she’s photographed in Wakefield. An innate durability is evident, as in Untitled, March 2022, where a teenager applies makeup to a friend’s face within the unstable reality of an infinitely mirrored room. The girl glances back in our direction with tender defiance, breaking the fourth wall and resisting her confinement. Similarly, in Metaverse, May 2022, another young woman stands with her eyes closed; surrounded by a crowd of compliant seated counterparts wearing virtual-reality headsets, her ecstatic stance implies she’s in a state of reverie, picturing another reality in the face of sublime external technological pressure. As I walked away from the Wakey Tavern, it struck me that the artist and her subjects provide an optimism that has not only helped push contemporary photography as a psychologically loaded medium, but has also transformed power in real life.