History is Now


Maryam Violet

7 August 2015


At London’s Southbank Centre, the exhibition History is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain offered a radical look at over seventy years in the history of British culture. Each of the exhibit’s seven curators assembled their own original surveys of a specific period in British history. Using over two hundred and fifty objects pulled from public and private collections, the curators brought together an eclectic and sometimes bold perspective of the nation’s recent past. Curator and photographer Hannah Starkey—who curated a section covering the 1970s, 80s, and 90s—took for her subject the relationship between the camera and women’s bodies. ZananTV interviewed Starkey about her portion of the History is Now exhibit and got her take on the ways in which the place of women in British photography changed over these pivotal decades and how it continues to evolve today.

 

“Women’s bodies are always being used to sell objects and products.” This is just one jumping off point for Starkey’s project at the History is Now exhibit. Starkey, who gathered most of her materials for the exhibition from the Arts Council collection, stresses that the 1970s and 80s were a time of great change for photography. These decades saw photography move from being considered a purely documentary medium to being welcomed as both a political tool and a form of high art. At this point, Starkey notes, photography “was set free.” These decades also marked other changes in the world of commercial photography, a major focus of Starkey’s project. Starkey is especially interested in exploring what she calls the “unattainable, narrow definition of beauty” sold in modern-day advertising.

 

For Starkey, contemporary advertising uses a “limited language” in relation to women’s bodies. Pointing to ads by companies like American Apparel, Starkey insists that this limited visual language descends from pornography, a trend that concerns the curator. “I do worry that the influence of porn,” which Starkey notes is now widely available to kids, “is affecting boys’ and girls’ relationships” she says. Starkey also points to the entrance of “lad culture” into the mainstream as problematic. When magazines such as Loaded, FHM, and Nuts joined lifestyle magazines on supermarket shelves, the movement for Starkey marked the normalization of a conflicted aesthetic. By “pretending to empower women” without really empowering them, Starkey says, these magazines “hijacked the idea of sexual equality and sexual empowerment.” For Starkey, these women merely engage in “self-objectification,” not self-empowerment.

 

Starkey lastly calls viewers of the History is Now exhibit to engage more critically with images. Highlighting the current prevalence of retouching photos of women’s bodies to reach a physical ideal, Starkey laments that people do not interrogate the images they see on a daily basis. “We don’t question them and they fly by us,” she admonishes. “Now we have human beings changing their physical structure to match a retoucher’s idea of the ultimate female body, which doesn’t exist in the first place.”

 

For more information about the History is Now exhibit, visit the Southbank Centre’s website here. For more information on Starkey and her work, visit her artist page for a recent exhibition here.