Back to Writing / 10-03-2006

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Icarus as a trapeze artist, Christ blowing blood-bubbles through the holes in his or her hands, Ophelia about to dive into a cup of water, Joan of Arc as a fire breather... the icons have certainly fallen into a dark and deviant underground carnival in the mind of Toby Slater-Hunt. The British photographer has been shooting his brilliantly twisted and mesmerizing series Iconival for almost two years now. Toby took some time to speak with us about his life in the circus.

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Sez G: Your recent project is called Iconival, and it portrays "fallen icons as circus/carnival performers." Your website envelopes us in a fantasy world of this traveling burlesque circus, using the follies of mythical characters as entertainment. Where did the inspiration for the project come from?

Toby Slater-Hunt: I was traveling the world, propping up various bars, when a hero of mine, Hunter S. Thompson died. This compelled me to rethink what I was doing and resulted in this project.

The original idea was to shoot the icons in hotel rooms... Eve checking out of the Garden of Eden and into a Super 8 Motel, as an example. I have always loved the work of Bettina Rheims and wanted to emulate her Chambre Close series, but I had terrible trouble finding either suitably squalid or sumptuous hotel rooms. They where all endless blue carpets, Formica and magnolia walls... very J.G. Ballard. Nonetheless, I just couldn't capture them. So I went back to people like Avedon, Penn and Mapplethorpe and pared it all down to be as simple and inexpensive as possible.

Sez G: What have your real life circus experiences been like? How did you come to transform it into a personal, darker, more erotic venture?

Toby Slater-Hunt: I have seen Cirque du Soleil a couple of times and the State Chinese Circus always rolls into Brighton during the summer. But the circus theme is more of a mechanism to play with the identity of icons, rather than an attempt to portray any sort of real circus experience.

I like the idea of making portraits of the performers "off stage left," so to speak, so one was forced to imagine what their actual acts where like.

Sez G: How did you select the historical characters and their acts?

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Toby Slater-Hunt: A lot of my understanding of mythology comes from art history, and the rest is easily blamed on the dichotomy between my multi-faith upbringing and my Catholic education. A lot of the icons I was really keen to do, but the constraints of the early part of the project forbade it. It's very difficult to shoot a fire breathing Joan of Arc in a hotel room!

Sez G: I bet, and it might be tough to find a fire breathing Joan of Arc as well. Where did you find your models? Did they choose their characters and how receptive were they to this project?

Toby Slater-Hunt: I approached models via online web communities, concentrating on "alternative"" models, fetish, dominatrix, retro pin up girls etc. I wanted to use models who would bring some of their own color to the shoots…larger-than-life personalities. I also felt that people from this background would be more receptive to my ideas and easier to collaborate with.

I was overwhelmed with positive responses and didn't get to shoot everyone, which was a shame. Most of the models selected characters from a list I had made, and we would discuss ideas. Some models even suggested their own character which was fantastic. The "cigars and diamantes" chapter on the website being a good example.

Sez G: What is the studio environment like when you shoot these? Do you play organ grinder music?

Toby Slater-Hunt: Well as I said earlier, the piece was produced on a very tight budget while I was traveling, so the "studio" was whatever budget hotel room I was staying in with all the furniture upended against one wall, like Keith Moon's hotel room if he suffered from obsessive- compulsive disorder. A color roll and a studio light were about it. No stereo, unfortunately, only CNN 24 hour, which certainly made the experience rather surreal.

Sez G: When did you start the Iconival project, is it still ongoing, and is it all you shoot at this time?

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Toby Slater-Hunt: The Iconival project started back in early 2005 and is indeed ongoing. I am always looking for collaborators and developing ideas. I am very interested in meeting some special effects make up artists to take it to the next level. I am also working on a project with a working title of "Burlesque Britannia," which is kind of self explanatory.

Sez G: How different is your approach to commercial work from your approach to personal work?

Toby Slater-Hunt: Well as it stands at the moment, I don't get offered much commercial work, but I hope that will change as the Iconival starts to gain exposure and momentum. I am far more interested in fine art photography, but as the projects I undertake get more ambitious, the budget grows and the monkey needs feeding!

Sez G: What's your background in photography?

Toby Slater-Hunt: I specialized in photography as part of my degree in Graphic Design, and have been working on various projects on and off ever since. I have only recently been getting attention and publishing opportunities, and hope soon to be exhibiting.

Sez G: Do you only shoot black and white? What's your preference?

Toby Slater-Hunt: I don't only shoot black and white, but I do prefer it. By stripping away one of the elements in which we see the world normally, i.e. color, I find it easier to look upon subjects with fresh eyes.

Sez G: Do you still live in Brighton? How involved are you in the "fetish scene?"

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Toby Slater-Hunt: Yes I am still in Brighton, but intend to travel again soon. As for the Brighton fetish scene, I am not overly involved, unfortunately, though my projects have led me to meet some wonderful characters and personalities from that scene. It's a scene I would love to document some day.

Sez G: You also paint. What kind of painting do you do?

Toby Slater-Hunt: Unfinished canvas, and lots of them! I love visual arts, especially painting and drawing, but they are very time consuming processes. I do not have the patience or discipline to see anything through to the end. This is one of the reasons I love the immediacy of photography, and I find my frustrated painters eye can be applied to photography with good results.

Sez G: I've seen some of your work credited to Xavier... Who's Xavier?

Toby Slater-Hunt: Xavier is my flamboyant photographer's alter ego. Many of the models I was working with would come to a shoot as multiple characters, and I felt that I should join in the fun.

Sez G: What's next for you?

Toby Slater-Hunt: I want to get a little further with the Iconival project and maybe exhibit part one early next year. I am also working on the burlesque project and seeking out funding and commercial opportunities now that I have a little exposure.

To learn more about Toby Slater-Hunt, visit

Toby Slater-Hunt - by Sez G.