Interview by Claire Sykes. Photos ©Polly Borland
It’s hard to imagine someone telling Polly Borland to shut up. But hearing those words as a child who was forceful and frank even back then, the girl who wanted to be a boy wasn’t going to let anyone silence her. So she let a camera do the talking.
Born and raised in suburban Melbourne and living in the US since 2011, Borland, 61, would be home in Los Angeles, California, right now if not for the coronavirus. In late-February, she and her husband, Australian film director John Hillcoat, left to attend the opening of the 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia, which featured about 20 of her most recent photographic works.
The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London, Australia’s National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) in San Diego and Nino Mier Gallery in LA, to name a few, also have shown Borland’s images over the years. The NPG, NGV and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts enjoy collections of her work; and four monographs of it have been published. In 1994, she won the John Kobal Photographic Portrait Award. The 2013 documentary on Borland, Polymorphous, directed by photographer and filmmaker Alex Chomicz, follows her own transformation through her personal work, which she sums up in the film as her “visual articulation of my real gut feeling about what it means to be alive.”
Whether it’s through her unconventional portraits and editorial photographs, her abstracted human-form portrayals or photographic sculptures, Borland’s work, from the realistic to the surreal, reveals often-inaccessible and psychologically subterranean worlds. “I think the camera gives one, depending on who’s behind it, a kind of entrée into places that people ordinarily wouldn’t go. And for me, it’s from a voyeuristic point of view, though not in any sexual way,” she says.
Via Zoom from Byron Bay, New South Wales, Borland talks about it all—and why her camera will always have something to say.
How has life been for you since the coronavirus?
In hindsight, I wouldn’t have gotten on that plane to Australia. Now, this many months later, it’s probably a blessing in disguise that we’re here. There’ve been so few COVID cases in Australia. But initially, we were terrified; we had such high anxiety and stress. I couldn’t focus on anything other than the news and keeping up on the virus. It sucked me of any motivation. Now I’m more relaxed, I’m less in a state of fight-or-flight, but I had to force myself to work.
What have you been working on?
I’m drawing—figure drawings of no one in particular, and of me—and I’ve never really drawn before. At first, I was working with pencil and colored pencils and now I’m using oil pastels. And I’ve started taking photos again, using an iPhone for the first time ever. I’m doing selfies, something I was starting to do before lockdown, but it’s the perfect thing to be doing now. That’s my next body of work. I feel like if I can get through this coronavirus, I want to at least have been productive.
I’ve spent years photographing people and revealing them in quite intimate ways, and I decided it was time to turn the camera on myself and do what I’d done with others. It felt like that was the next logical step, creatively and conceptually. I’m trying to create really arresting, challenging work. It’s what I’ve always tried to do. And these are sculptural, abstracted nudes.
What’s most difficult for you in taking these pictures of yourself?
The way I dress and present myself in my life is all very carefully crafted and thought out, and to not have that “mask” in place is very confronting for me, very exposing. I’m of a particular age and I’m not comfortable with the way I look, particularly now, overweight, from being stressed and eating in lockdown. I used to do quite vigorous exercise, and I’m not rushing around like I used to.
I’m also finding it difficult, creatively, because I don’t have the control that I have when photographing somebody else. I struggle with the process, which I’ve never struggled with in my other bodies of work. In the past, because it was me and the camera and then someone outside of me or in front of me, I could easily work out what I wanted to say. Now, because I haven’t got that detachment, that physical separation from the subject, it’s more difficult. With the iPhone, I’m not seeing what I’m getting as I’m taking the photo. It’s hard for me to compose myself and the photograph and see what I’m doing as I’m doing it. A lot of it’s luck, and I’ve never worked that way before. Also, it’s very hard for me to be objective about whether the photos are good or not, because they’re of me.
The work is challenging for me. But it’ll also be challenging for whoever views it. There are certain friends, for instance, that I wouldn’t want to see the work, but I know they probably will. And I know that I will be viewed differently. All the things I’ve tried to cover up through the years, physically as well as metaphorically, are going to be on display. When my gallery [Nino Mier Gallery in LA] rang me several months ago and said we should postpone the show until March 2021, I said, you’re right, not until after the coronavirus, but now I’m sure we won’t be done with it by then. I don’t want the work out there on the internet before people can experience it “in the flesh.” It’s too important. I want the work to be such that I wouldn’t put it out there unless I knew it could stand alone and hopefully be some of the best work I’ve ever done. Otherwise, what’s the point of putting myself in that vulnerable position? I always want my work to be independent of me, and that I can live with it even though it’s not going to make me feel comfortable, necessarily. It’s got to have its own life beyond me. And it’s got to be good.
You mentioned control, and I’ve read that control was one reason why, at age 16, you started taking pictures in the first place.
Control and a sense of peace. I grew up in a very chaotic household, with six siblings. When I was about four, my mother got tuberculosis—she was a chronic smoker and, on top of that, an alcoholic, but a functional one—and she was in bed for six months, and had a newborn and a 10-month-old baby. She was very ill for a long time and emotionally pretty absent, then died when she was only 49 and I was 21. My father, an architect, was extremely visual. And I was a very visual child, almost hyper-visual. I was highly observant, interested in looking at everything and constantly making value judgments about what I liked about what I was seeing. It was really very detail-oriented for me. It was just how I was wired.
In secondary school, I loved art history, and we also had to study the practical side of art. I didn’t think I could draw, and the art teacher, Neil, had set up a darkroom for me in one of the closets at school and suggested that I take pictures, instead. He started the whole photography journey for me; I don’t think I would’ve come up with it on my own. And that’s when my father lent me his Nikkon with the Nikkor lenses. At some point, I realized that I could order and control the world around me by looking through the “little hole” and framing. I could make up the world as I would’ve liked it to be. It wasn’t necessarily conscious for me at the time. But I remember that when I pointed the camera and moved it around and decided on a place to take the picture, and maybe alter what was in that space, it was comforting, and exciting for me. Photographing was a coping mechanism in a way, but also, the world made sense for me on a visual level, as something that I could have some control over. So I started taking photos, of my sisters and friends, and developing and printing them. And I’ve been taking photos ever since.
You prefer to shoot with film, not digitally. Why?
Film’s got its own, innate quality to it. The whole thing about photography for me, from the start, was the magical part of developing the film and looking at the negatives, printing them and seeing them in the solution, watching the image appear. It was that chance and magic that I loved, and also the quality of film photography. I love the grainy texture. I do get digital prints from the negative, which I scan. But, except for my iPhone selfies, I still shoot film. I love everything about film.
Why have you always photographed people?
I just liked people. And weirdly, I liked being a teenager, the discovery of life as a teenager. And I was attracted to the way other people looked, how each person was dressed different. Also, in those days, I was very shy, and the camera gave me a safe activity to do with someone rather than relying on conversation. Photography was a way for me to connect with people. I’d be photographing them, focusing on them, and they’d like that and tell me things. It gave me a built-in framework in which to communicate with someone, and not appear shy.
I read that in the late-70s, when you were about 19, you were part of the free-spirited Crystal Ballroom nightclub scene in Melbourne’s St. Kilda area. And that’s when you met singer-songwriter Nick Cave, artist Tony Clark, fashion designer Martin Grant and your husband, film director John Hillcoat. How did this time of your life influence you as a photographer?
That whole scene was such a creative explosion, and extremely experimental, but also chaotic, and I was experimental with life. A lot of people were living on the edge. John, my husband, was instrumental in encouraging me to be fearless, to not be afraid, creatively, and that I could explore the dark side and be OK. If I hadn’t experienced all that, I probably would’ve taken a much safer aesthetic trajectory with my photography.
When did you know you wanted to go to the then-named Prahran College, in Melbourne, now the Victorian College of the Arts? And what most inspired you there?
I knew that I wanted to be an artist the minute I started taking photos. Art school was where I discovered the work of Diane Arbus, Weegee and Larry Clark. Arbus was my first love. I loved her subject matter, and the fact that she was in New York, photographing people who were fascinating and complex, on all levels, and how straight-forward most of her photos were. She was obviously a humanist. These were deep connections she was having with people. I thought being in those situations, photographing those people, was so intimate; it couldn’t get any better, as far as I was concerned. And her photos packed a punch at the same time. There was definitely an edge, a realness, to what she was doing that I liked. She was brave; she embodied this fearlessness, roaming and exploring the underbelly of New York, bringing back documentation of places that are beyond most people’s reach. I’d like to think that some of the things I’ve photographed have required me to be brave and be an explorer, too.
I read that after you got your diploma in photography in 1983, you did portraiture and editorial; and you made a serious attempt at fashion photography, but quickly realized you weren’t cut out for it. In Australia, you became established as a leading portrait photographer for Australian Vogue, Vogue Living, a now-defunct magazine called Pol, the fringe-art Tension Magazine.
Yes, I was already getting a name for being different with my portraiture style, which was considered unusual. I was photographing people in a classical but quirky way, with bright colors.
Then, I know you and John moved to England, in 1989, not long after Nick Cave and Tony Clark did. Why?
I knew that the kind of portraits I was doing in Australia were more acceptable in England, in magazines like The Face and Arena, these youth-culture magazines with incredible photography in them. So that and the fact that one of John’s films had been accepted into the London Film Festival was why we left Australia. And we knew we wouldn’t go back. Australia had become too restrictive for us, creatively.
How did your portrait career progress?
It was extremely hard to break into England. It took me three years. A journalist friend of mine there, Jessamy Calkin, and I started doing offbeat reportage—one of them was of English people who dressed up as cowboys at something called the Cowboy Club—and sold the images and text as packages to The Face, Arena and BLITZ. We went to Memphis and on our way to see Graceland, we met the “Rhinestone Cowboy,” covered in rhinestones, on him and on the inside and outsides of his car and his house; and we went to New Orleans to photograph Anne Rice, the Interview with the Vampire author. Jessamy and I were generating our own ideas, slowly getting work.
Eventually I met Liz Jobey, then with The Independent, and within a couple months I became a regular contributor to The Independent on Sunday, doing portraits of people like the Bee Gees and Barry Manilow; and more offbeat reportage, of nudists and Star Trek fans. I’d get most of the covers. That really launched me. And soon I was photographing for The Sunday Telegraph, the UK’s Vogue and Elle; and The New Yorker, Newsweek, Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair. Details magazine sent me to Moscow, Russia, in 1991 after Communism had fallen there, to do a piece on the sex industry. It was fascinating. I went to Hong Kong, Finland, France. I went all over Europe, England, America. I photographed a lot of writers, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis. And I’m very proud of my portraits of Nick Cave, who I’ve photographed for over 30 years.
Nick Cave ©Polly Borland
Then, the National Portrait Gallery in London started buying my work and I also donated some of my photographs to them. One day I asked one of the photography curators, Terence Pepper, how to get a show there, and he told me you’ve got to come up with an idea. So I came up with portraits of prominent Australian expatriates who have contributed to English society. That’s when I met Cate Blanchett. Along with Nick Cave, Tony Clark and my husband, I also photographed Kylie Minogue, Natalie Imbrugila, comedian Barry Humphries and human-rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson.
Fifty-five of your portraits were exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery’s “Polly Borland: Australians,” in 2000. And then about a year later, Buckingham Palace commissioned you to photograph Queen Elizabeth II, to commemorate her Golden Jubilee in 2002. That year, your portrait of her was exhibited in a group show of Golden Jubilee Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery and at Windsor Castle. What was it like to photograph her?
The pinnacle of my portrait work was photographing the Queen. It was so stressful, though. I was told I had only five minutes once she got in front of the camera. I think it was the most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life. She walked into the room in a hurry because she arrived late and had somewhere else to go afterwards. I thought I’d be able to get 10 rolls in those five minutes, and I quickly started photographing her. I was allowed to instruct her as to what I wanted to do, but she didn’t want to know. I was so nervous I only got two rolls.
I’d photographed many famous people and she was one more. Or so I thought. But when I got in her company, my early indoctrination kicked in, growing up with photographs of the Queen in the schools and every public space. There was something about royalty that was different from fame. And I went into this disassociated kind of state, that I didn’t even notice that Prince Philip was there.
At one point, I wanted her to turn to the left, and I got on the floor to manhandle her feet and my husband who was there said, “I think Polly means turn left.” I was a total mess because it was so nerve-wracking. But she started to laugh. It’s a miracle I got any photos. And they happened to be good ones. And I got to keep the copyright, which was a bonus.
Queen Elizabeth ©Polly Borland
How did your portrait career continue after that?
It was towards the end of my portrait career that I photographed the Queen. And though I could’ve kept going and probably would’ve got a lot more photo commissions off the back of my photo of her, I really lost interest in doing portraits after that. I still did them, but the Queen was the last of the last.
I had met all sorts of interesting people and I enjoyed photographing them. But it was also really stressful for me because I had only a finite amount of time to do it, and I was shooting film, so I didn’t know what I was getting. I always had anxiety about what the result was going to be and whether the client was going to like the photos, though I had a pretty good success rate. But I really didn’t like having to please other people. It had become exhausting; it was a lot of work. And ultimately, it wasn’t satisfying.
Your photos of the Queen came after those of the adult babies—men, usually, who dress up as infants and role-play their regression together.
A friend told me about them, and I definitely knew that I was onto something when I first encountered them, in Gillingham, Kent, at the Hush-a-Bye-Baby Club. They had all the elements. The subject was surreal and aroused my curiosity; it was very complex, and that’s what attracted me to it. I wanted to understand why these people did what they did. Visually, it was incredible. The look of men dressed up as babies was disjointed, and defied a logic. It was disturbing to me, and uncomfortable. There was this seedy side to them and, at the same time, they were really lovely people. Those first photos of mine were published in The Independent’s Saturday Magazine. The adult babies captivated me so much that six months later I decided to do a book about them, and I went on to photograph more in England, France, America and Australia. The book took me five years.
The Babies, published by PowerHouse Books in 2001, is what got you known in the US. And Susan Sontag wrote the essay for it. How did that come about?
While I was working on the book, I was flown to New York by The Guardian to take her portrait. As I was photographing her, she asked, “What else do you do?” I told her about “The Babies” body of work and she said she’d be in England the following week, so we met for breakfast. She was staying at a hotel by the National Portrait Gallery where I had my [“Australians”] show, and my name was on the banner. And over scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and bagels, I showed her my little box of 10-by-8 photos. She was so taken with them and asked, “Who’s writing the essay?” I never would’ve thought she’d want to. That would be my dream.
In Sontag’s essay in The Babies she says, “Borland’s pictures seem very knowing, compassionate; and too close, too familiar, to suggest common or mere curiosity.” How did you gain the adult babies’ trust and willingness to be so exposed, open and expressive in front of your camera? And in general, how have you approached photographing people?
For me, it’s really about my personality. I realized over time that it’s my job to make people feel at ease. I think I just try and be reassuring, chatty, interested in them, which I am automatically because I’m there to photograph them. And just making them feel safe and secure. Most people love the attention. While I’m photographing, it’s very much a series of visual decisions that I’m making. And when I was doing jobbing photography and portraits, it was visual decisions with value judgments attached: Is this person looking comfortable? How do I get them to look comfortable? Do they look the best they could possibly look as I’m taking the photos? And then, How interesting is the photo of this person? How can I do something bit more unusual to make it more interesting, more arresting?
It seems you’ve also answered these questions regarding your photographs, in general, because with each new body of work, you’ve gone into more adventurous visual and conceptual territory. Like your “Bunny” body of work, which contorts the notion of the Playboy bunny in ironically charged erotic images where femininity confronts feminism. I love that your now-rare book, Bunny—published in 2008 by Other Criteria Books, with a poem by Nick Cave and a short story by Will Self—makes anyone holding it for the first time rip a pair of pantyhose off the cover in order to open it.
My “Bunny” series took me five years, and with just one model, Gwendoline Christie, before she was famous [playing Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones]. I’d seen this really tall girl walking around Brighton, where I was living at the time. “Oh my gosh, she’s amazing,” I thought. “She’s going to be my next book.” Not only was she extremely tall, but in those days she looked like a 1950s starlet.
I knew that she worked in a shop in Brighton Lanes called Pussy, not a sex shop, but a knick-knack shop. I waltzed in there one day and she was looking at photos of herself from a party, surrounded by a gaggle of men. I said to her, “I’d like to photograph you and maybe do a book.” And she said, “As you can see, I’m an exhibitionist and maybe that would be great.” She Googled me to see who I was and then said yes.
After a year or two, she moved to London to go to drama school and she would come down on the weekends to Brighton and I’d photograph her once a week or every two, whenever she was available. That was an incredible experience because it was such a collaborative process. We had gotten close and ideas really flowed. She was great to be around. The original idea for me was to do 1950s pinups of her in homage to Bunny Yaeger [famous in that decade and the 60s for her photographs for Playboy]. But then the series morphed into the darker side of pinups. It became an exploration of femininity and turning that on its head. I’m very proud of the work.
Your “Smudge” portrait series, from 2008—also a 2011 book by the same name—ventures into the playfully sinister, a ribald mix, with its costumes, sheer body stockings, dramatic make-up, masks and clownish wigs. Cave shows up wearing a blue 70s shag and matching sequin-sleeved dress, his mouth slashed with red. Where does this kooky-kinky come from in you?
I’ve been asked that question before and I really have a blind spot. If I could explain it for you, I would, but I really don’t know where that comes from. I haven’t analyzed it. But with my “Smudge” photos, I don’t think the work really nods to conventional fetishistic imagery of bondage and that kind of world. That’s not my aim. I’m not trying to reference that, and I hope that’s not identifiable in the work, because that doesn’t interest me at all. The work is meant to be its own world, with its own language. Some males that have met me, I can sense that they’ve assumed that I’m adventurous, but really, I’m a rather conservative, prudish kind of person.
After “Smudge,” your portraits of people mutated into the purely sculptural—no eyes, hair or mouths to be seen. In your “Pupa,” “Morph” and “Monster” series, their bodies are bent, curled up and twisted, bound in colorful, stretchy opaque nylon sometimes over tumor-like protrusions that you made from socks.
Then you turned some of your photos, including the one of the Queen, into tapestries, hung to welcome views of both sides—the front a tidy pixilated stitching, the back a distorted, more abstract version of the photo’s image. I read that you worked with an English prisoner-advocacy organization called Fine Cell Work, which trains inmates in skilled needlework, for which they do get paid. Why tapestries?
Photography for me was always because I couldn’t draw. So creating something that’s not a photograph, from a photograph, was another logical, creative step. And I love the whole arts-and-crafts thing of the 1970s hippie era. The 70s was a brilliant period also for film, music and art. I love everything about that time, except for the Vietnam War.
You expanded the two-sided idea with your giant, free-standing sculptural lenticular photos and smaller, framed ones. How did you arrive at making lenticulars?
The tapestries was this idea of messing with the photograph, rather than a straight photograph, by offering a two-for-one in the breaking up of the image. The lenticular photos were another natural development of my work. It started when I saw a retrospective show of Mike Kelley’s at MOCA [Museum of Contemporary Art in LA] in 2014, and within that were his large lenticulars, modern-day ones like the postcards you see. I got an idea that I’d love to do something along those lines, and given my more 70s aesthetic, I started researching lenticulars. I liked the childlike element of surprise in seeing a three-dimensional view in two dimensions, and marrying that with images that aren’t childlike—nudes. With the smaller, three-dimensional lenticulars hanging on the wall [like a hand-folded paper fan spread out], go left and you see one image, go right and you see another. The larger, free-standing lenticulars do the same thing, but on both sides of them, so there are a total of four different photos. For all, they’re nudes paired with one-color overlays of that shape, or my teenage son Louie in a yoga pose.
Polly Borland Installation
In general, how do you want others to experience your photos?
I try not to think about that. But if there was something, it would be that people would maybe have a different point of view or a different way of looking at the world. But that’s not something I set out to do. If other people enjoy my work, then that’s sort of a bonus for me. I don’t think what I’m doing is that important, other than it’s part of an art conversation, but it’s not important to everyone. Documentary photography is more important to society, but there’s an argument for art, and for culture. I’d like people to appreciate my work, but that’s the one thing I can’t control.
When you look at your work over the decades, what do you see?
It’s about uncomfortable human truths and the disintegration, I suppose, of the body. That’s what I see as the common thread. It’s about using photos as documents, but also to create something of my own. And it’s ultimately about controlling the environment that I’m living in, and a way of interpreting the world.
How do you view your career from the vantage point of today?
It’s given me an incredible life, a means of expression. I’ve traveled extensively, and it’s enriched my life in a sort of philosophical sense. It’s also allowed me to connect with people. I’m way less interested in that now, though. I’m disillusioned with humanity; I don’t feel hopeful about it.
Also, a lot of my career decisions have been instinctual, but I’ve made certain ones that haven’t served me, creatively. I think the decision to get trapped in the whole editorial game, meeting all these interesting people and traveling the world, was a distraction. It took me away from what was always my original love, which was to show my own, personal work in galleries. I loved photographing for magazines, but in a way it went on too long. I’ve really only been doing my personal practice since the mid-90s and I feel like I lost a lot of time I could’ve spent cementing myself as an artist. But in the last few years, there are no boundaries for me. I still love taking photos, and hopefully I’ve got another 20 years left on this earth, maybe more. There’s no plan to stop. My creativity is infinite.
Along with your selfies, where do you see your photography headed?
I definitely will be doing more sculpture. But I’ve also been thinking of returning to reportage. Most of my favorite photographers have done this or documentary photography, and they’re the sort of photos I like the best. The coronavirus lockdown has given me a moment of pause and reflection, and I think it’s probably time to try something that’s not necessarily new to me, but return to something that’s important. I’ve always been aware of what’s going on in the world, but now you can’t ignore it. We’ve all got a responsibility to contribute.
© 2020-21 by Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.
To see more work by Polly Borland, please visit her website, pollyborland.com.