Yesterday, we found ourselves more than a little star-struck to turn the lens on one of Australia’s most iconic photographers, Polly Borland. If you don’t recognise Polly from her picture or by name, you’re likely to have seen her unforgettable glitter-backed portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. (No, it’s not photoshopped – this is the real deal!)
Based in Los Angeles since 2011, the photographic artist’s attention is now firmly on more anonymous subjects for her personal projects, rather than the VIP portraiture commissions for which she is best known. This week, she was back in her former home of Melbourne to open her latest exhibition, ‘Monster’. The two-part body of work brings together ‘straightjackety’ photography and corresponding reversible tapestries created by prison inmates, in a fascinating exploration of physical and emotional constriction and restraint.
Contemplative yet sincere, Polly afforded us a chance to learn more about her new ‘abstracted emotional mindscapes’, and reflected on her multi-faceted career – from high school cupboard dark room to daring world-leader portraiture, and beyond…
Can you tell us a little about your background and how this led you to becoming a photographic artist?
I studied photography at art school at Prahran College, which merged with the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), which has helped me along the way.
Before that, I did art history at high school, and in those days if you did art history you had to do a practical subject. I didn’t feel I could draw or paint and my art teacher was a bit of a hippie so he said, ‘Why don’t I build a darkroom in the cupboard?’ He did that, and I’ve been taking photos ever since!
So that’s 40 years now, but obviously now it’s not just taking photos – it’s expanded into art practice; It was always my intention to pursue my personal work. I modelled myself more on the Diane Arbuses of the world, that was the sort of photography on my radar. But there wasn’t such a distinction then between art photography and other types of photography – you might do everything. I was doing editorial, portraits, fashion, reportage, and I was doing my own personal work.
How would you describe your work and its influences?
My art is very existential. I’m dealing with abstracted emotional mindscapes. I use figurative abstraction to reduce body parts to shapes that hint at this psychological interior or allude to existential crises.
As far as influences go, I like the work of Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Larry Clark, Diane Arbus as I said, the Australian painter Tony Clark, and Howard Arkley. From an earlier generation, I look at the work of John Brack, Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd. Then there are filmmakers – film is a huge influence on my work – so there is Pasolini and Fassbinder, among others.
You’ve been in Melbourne to open your latest solo exhibition, ‘Monster’ at Murray White Room. Can you give us some insight into this new series.
The new work is in two series – nine new photographs and nine new tapestries. The title of the show is specific to a particular photograph of a giant figure in red.
Across the series, it’s all very fleshy, with round balls a definite motif. One with a ball in the mouth is called ‘Gag’, for instance. There’s something quite foreboding about the new images, and there’s always a slightly on-the-edge connotation to what’s happening in them. I’m exploring the play between physical and emotional constriction and restraint. It feels a bit ‘straightjackety’.
The tapestries are a kind of multimedia – I’ve drawn coloured shapes over some of the images and then they’ve been turned into tapestries. That work is done by prison inmates in the UK as part of the Fine Cell Work rehabilitation program.
My new photographs are of two different people, Bella Heathcote, an Australian actress who lives in LA, and Ava Berlin, who is the co-founder of How Many Virgins?, a limited-edition art publication.
Can you take us through your creative process, including how you generate your ideas?
Just by living life. The works mainly come from my imagination and I draw on life experiences, film and art. The tactility of analogue photography is important in the sense that there is an element of surprise when you’re shooting film and it’s not as contrived. So that’s important.
The other important thing is texture and form. I’m creating sculptural forms within my practice so there is an element of making my own fantastical figurative visions. There is a tactility to it and shooting on film is a part of that.
My main inspiration remains my own internal barometer and emotional mindscape.
Over your illustrious career you’ve created some truly iconic pieces. The one that comes to mind for many people is your bold portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Can you tell us about how the concept to shoot The Queen in this way came about?
It was the Golden Jubilee, so the gold tinsel backdrop had a logical sense to it. The Palace had agreed to it and I already had it set up, but the Queen didn’t know about it before she arrived. There was no hint that the gold one was going to be an issue, but then there was a floral one too, and she did react to that. I think she thought that was a bit ‘loud’. That one was never officially approved, though later it was used as the cover of the Sunday Times magazine, with the heading ‘the unofficial portrait of the Queen’.
I’ve read that during this shoot you were a bit panicked and it was all over quite quickly. How did the shoot unfold, and what was that experience like for you?
Yes, I was totally panicked. I managed to take one roll of photographs in the first set-up and then another roll in the next set-up, and that was it. That was it, two rolls of film! I was telling the Queen to smile, which because she doesn’t like being photographed didn’t come that easily, and I wasn’t being very funny because I was so panicked. Then I pretty much broke all of the protocols because my instinct was almost to physically position her for the shots. And that broke the ice. She burst out laughing, she was chatty, she was friendly – but she was in a hurry.
I don’t mind talking about it, though sometimes I’m not in the mood. When I meet people, they want to hear the whole spiel. It was once funny, but I can’t really tell it unless I’m in the right mood to be funny with it!
Across your career, who else has been a memorable subject?
I used to love doing politicians, so I did Silvio Berlusconi in the presidential palace in Rome – that was amazing. I also did Donald Trump in the Trump Tower in the ’90s and that was pretty interesting. I loved photographing men, or people, in positions of extreme power and the reason I liked that was because I find it interesting in people who are drawn to power, how it corrupts and subverts them from human decency in a lot of ways. I liked to witness that up-close-and-personal, but now I’m quite disturbed by that sort of thing.
In the documentary Polly Borland: Polymorphous (2013) you explained that you don’t like taking photos for people in general as you’re always terrified that they won’t like them. Has this changed?
I don’t generally photograph other people as jobs anymore. Though I did my first job recently for British Vogue and I was photographing Nick Cave after 15 years of not photographing him. I did this shoot because Nick and Susie asked me to and I thought it would be interesting to do an editorial shoot after not doing one for so long. I did it as a favour to them and also it was British Vogue and I was very happy to be in the magazine.
When I know that I’ve done a good job then I don’t have the fear that people won’t like the photos.
My personal work is purely for me and if people like it, they like it, and if they don’t, they don’t. It’s all collaborative and obviously I would like my models to be invested in what we’re doing but – unless it’s about that person – I’m not there to please or to serve them.
In that same documentary, Nick Cave said, ‘If you sit down and talk to Polly, you walk away kind of reeling away from the conversation, and thinking that you’ve given away way too much information.’ Do you think taking the time to get to know a subject has been vital to your iconic portraiture work?
Well, in the old days, if I was doing an editorial shoot and I didn’t know the sitter then I didn’t have much time. With Queen Elizabeth II I had five minutes to shoot her. That was, again, part of the limitations to that way of working. But I’ve had greater satisfaction, for example, from being able to shoot Nick Cave over the last 40 years and revisit that, because we’re friends and it becomes a creative collaboration.
How do you feel about the more instantaneous direction general photography (and even art photography) is headed in, with the rise of iPhones and Instagram?
I think the internet has ruined everything. It’s devalued things, particularly with music, photography and now film. For starters, no-one has copyright. It doesn’t really exist anymore and artists are providing free content to the internet and someone’s making a shit load of money, and it’s not us.
For me, it’s the death of culture. I’m on Instagram and I still like it because it’s visual, but really, it’s as my 16-year-old son said, ‘A popularity contest, Mum.’ And it’s not that interesting, because it’s just about how many followers and likes you’ve got.
Who are some Australian creatives you find inspiring at the moment?
Tony Clark is a beautiful painter and there’s an incredible sensitivity to his images, which are breathtaking at the same time as being both emotional and intelligent. They’re packed with just so much stuff and they’re sort of punk rock.
I think Constanze Zikos is incredible. He’s really speaking to his cultural background within an Australian, or particularly a Melbourne, context. His work is just meticulous and it operates on both an aesthetic and a conceptual level.
Eliza Hutchinson is probably one of the most important artists of her generation. She’s an incredible conceptualist and the real deal.
All the artists who I’ve mentioned should be celebrated more than they are. I think there’s this strain of kitsch show-art that’s taken off in Australia, which is just not interesting to me.
What will you be focusing on next, heading into 2018?
The image ‘Monster’ is a segue into my next body of work, which I’ve already started on. I’m going even further in my reduction of visual language, so there is even less bodily detail; it’s less identifiable in its humanness. It’s pushing into a realm of preconsciousness. I’m working on a major project but I can’t reveal the details yet!