. artist

H.M. "Filling In For Cerberus" (2016) 


.. about hunter madsen


Hunter is a photographer and essayist who hails from a family of writers and artists working in diverse media, in a line that traces back to Samuel F.B. Morse, the 19th-century American painter and inventor (who, as it happens, brought the daguerreotype from Europe, and later mentored Mathew Brady). 


Trained originally as a social scientist, Hunter earned degrees from Dartmouth and Harvard University, where he received his Ph.D. and taught liberal philosophy and world politics for several years before joining the advertising industry, initially in Manhattan and later in San Francisco. With the advent of the internet, Hunter rose quickly to become a senior partner at agency giant J. Walter Thompson, was invited to head up JWT’s first worldwide center for excellence in digital media (a position he designed and ultimately declined), and was awarded the first-ever international Atticus Prize, from global media leviathan WPP, for his innovative writings on the future of marketing.


Hunter subsequently took on leadership roles at Wired, Yahoo, and other seminal startups in Silicon Valley, championing early data-driven technologies for services online, such as personalized shopping bots, behaviorally targeted advertising, and the first intuitive music browser.


Along the way, Hunter published occasional pieces on American life and culture, and penned a monthly column on emerging Web trends for Britain's Management Today. Working on the side, he co-authored the controversial book, After the Ball, and gained notoriety as a pioneering strategist for LGBTQ civil rights in America.


Hunter is based near Vancouver, British Columbia, where he lives with his German-Canadian partner and a rescued Persian greyhound, named Weltschmerz, from Teheran.  Hunter splits his time between civic activism and fine art. 


H.M. "On Holidays, Hilla and Bernd Catalogued Seaside Structures" (2015) 


.. about this art  .  the problem of beauty now


Part observation and part commentary, Hunter's photographs and interpretive texts locate glimmers of heaven and hell in overlooked corners. His art pursues its themes through oblique provocation, mixed messaging, and paradox. The images range widely in subject, at times delighting in sour metaphor and the incipient weirdness of ordinary moments, and at other times celebrating the inherent rhythms of made objects, grieving the collapse of the natural world in the hands of man, or exploring the mysterious power of beauty to establish itself in the face of chaos, decline, and spiritual darkness.  


More broadly, Hunter's body of work reconsiders a proposition that Euripedes posed in ancient times, and that Edward Steichen's groundbreaking 1953 MOMA show, The Family of Man, proclaimed triumphantly for photography as a fine art: "Shall not loveliness be loved forever?"   


Hunter answers this question with a yes, probably, but if you asked many artists working today on the photo-conceptual frontier, their answer regarding the beauty imperative in art would more likely be no, not so much.  What has gradually emerged is a quiet disconnect between visual passion and conceptualism, which Hunter's photographs seek to bridge by exploring the interplay between beauty and ideas. 

H.M. "Gender Studies" (2017) 


what can beauty get done when pretty steps back?  Beyond peripheral decoration, what is the role of beauty today in art that concerns itself with more than prettiness? At this stage in the short history of photographs as a medium, some of the field's most admired artists have subordinated aesthetic impact to more coolly intellectualized agendas. The outputs produced by such experimentalists are often stimulating in their own right, and are usually not unattractive, having been crafted with meticulous care and freighted painstakingly with ideas.


Even so, creating fresh beauty is not usually the point of conceptualist projects. Indeed, in many cases the images we see would seem designed to operate chiefly as though they were, in effect, illustrating a patent application for intellectual ownership of some interesting new art-making process, theoretical insight, or social experience that the artist wishes to brandmark. Once the idea or process behind pictures of this sort is explained and grasped, the photograph has delivered its main payload and the viewer is ready to move on. Any emotional combustion that an image's design and finish might additionally induce may feel almost beside the point, if not a distraction, since the intended viewing experience is more cerebral than aesthetic.


H.M. "Sweet Bird" (2021)


beauty's retreat into tropes and sentiment. How did visual reward come to take such a back seat? Understandably, the field's front-runners are eager to leave behind the tired beauty tropes and over-sweetened sensibility of conventional photo art, which still sells vigorously because it works within well-trod paradigms that trigger a pre-formatted, sentimental response. Consider all those breathtaking landscape panoramas, refined floral shots, wildlife closeups, dramatically gritty street scenes, high-gloss fashion pouts, and arty B&W nudes that a legion of skilled, traditionalist photographers has long since flogged to the brink of cliché. 


Is that where beauty ends in our era, with a jaded sigh? Has the contribution that aesthetics make to art objects really become so formulaic and boring?  What if, instead, the experience of visual pleasure were pointedly detached from its usual habitats and bonded to less anodyne affairs, with beauty operating, not as a secondary sweetener, but as the central reason for appreciating the picture, an experience sharpened by beauty's less familiar trappings and more dissonant content attachments? Although they saddle up quite a menagerie of disparate themes and topics, taken altogether Hunter's images amount to an exploration of potential beauty in less expected places and more varied forms.


H.M. "Hard Love" (2014)     


True, we live in an era that is all-but-buried in pix of conventionally pretty things to look at.  Some worry - the artist, among them -  that this abundance is dulling our minds' underlying capacity to respond deeply to beauty in general.  Our brains come to anticipate stereotypic ideas of the sublime and plug them into their standard groupings by reflex ("another vivid sunset," "another stunning model," "another delicate yellow rose in porcelain vase"...) rather than encounter each new image as a fresh, unique experience.


As we keep reacting to the onrushing barrage of gorgeous things in all the expected categories of gorgeousness, a benumbed predictability creeps in. Soon we see Gertrude Stein's point, because a rose is a rose is a rose. What, really, is the good of artists pumping out yet more "new" images along those lines? 


the pursuit of unexpected beauty. Hence the challenge confronting photographic artists today: with eyes now glazing before its familiar charms, can one possibly awaken viewers to fresh beauty arising in contexts - often, uncomfortable, unexpected, or unpromising ones - where beauty's very presence still has the power to surprise and to feel somehow original?  


More than that, in a contemporary culture where the experience of beauty has been framed so often as little more than the eye candy come-on of commerce, is there still a way to conjure original images whose aesthetic character - their striking composition, design, use of light and values, energy, emotional overtones or spiritual feeling - becomes the chief point of engagement, the aspect that merits return viewing and calls forth its own distinct wonder, for reasons over and above whatever animal, vegetable, or mineral happens to be standing before the camera? 


H.M. "Being and Nothingness" (2015)


This challenge drives much of the work here, within a compendium that, across 40 galleries, brings together several hundred images, plus a diverse selection of text-and-photo essays, completed over the last decade. These are forays into the relationship between surface and substance, intended as soundings into deeper matters.  Akin to what Agnes Martin once said about her paintings, these photographed moments are less about what is seen than about what breaks through, long known in the mind.  


In pursuit of new beauty, the photographer gallops off in all directions at once, across a sprawling topography. Even with a site map and a sack of bread crumbs, newcomers may, at first pass, find this riding hard to circuit.  Rather than unearth yet more images from the locales where beauty is traditionally mined, most of the photography here starts by looking elsewhere, in places where beauty can instead emerge from resonant metaphor, from invigorating contexts of order or disorder or spiritual darkness, and from emotionally complex - rather than merely picturesque - landscapes.  


The aesthetic dimensions of many images here are modified further, in subtle or obvious ways, so that their appeal might strike the eye as somehow unexpected or even alien to its subject matter.  Deliberately alienated beauty can heighten the viewer's attention and engagement in ways that more familiar and expected expressions of beauty cannot. The wide-open approach that this work takes toward beauty alienation by any and all suited means follows that of Ernst Haas, the pioneering poet of color photography: through a range of deliberate alterations, Haas embraced his unfettered liberty to "transform an object from what it is to what I want it to be."  The images here owe as much to the expressive latitudes of painting as they do to the documentary presumptions of photography.


In .. ideas you can read further about art photography's aesthetic divide, and about this site's offbeat framework for perceiving beauty.  On the other hand, if you are someone who is only marginally interested in this stuff anyway, then you have already made yourself slog through quite enough artspeak, so now you're probably best advised to simply poke around the place in search of something unexpected. 

H.M. "Life Is Interesting" (2015)           




Unless otherwise indicated, all text and images at www.HunterMadsen.com are copyrighted by Hunter Madsen (2021).  All rights reserved.