Sheer Polly: Will Self salutes Polly Borland

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Polly Borland’s extraordinary portraits – some taken for this magazine – have made her one of the world’s most sought-after photographers. To mark a new exhibition, Will Self salutes her unique vision

I'm one of those journalists, who, although he doesn't really have the right – I never watched compositors at work on the stone, I never wore a trench coat, I never fell over drunk in El Vino's – still likes to refer contemptuously to photographers as "snappers". If I have to do a story with a photographer, I'll use the term whenever I can: "Just wait for the snapper," I'll say; or, yawning, "the snapper won't like the light". Any excuse to remind all concerned of the primacy of words over pictures. A couple of years ago in the States, I was working with a snapper who told me, unabashed, that there were an estimated 20,000 professional photographers in Manhattan alone.

A breathtaking statistic; and one that underscores the fact that photography remains the glassy surface on to which mass desires – in the form of delusive images – are projected from either side. Photography is where the world's wannashows meets its wannalooks. For any one photographer to make work that is serious enough – and good enough – to stand out from the crowd of snappers is an astonishing achievement.

Of those whom I've seen at work – or worked with – there are a handful that grab the medium and do something original with it. Don McCullin, David Bailey and Jane Brown all come to mind, distinguished by their unflashy style and their determined vision. Not for them the endless Polaroids, the Annie-Leibovitz-load of assistants, and the "just one more roll" – because let's face it, especially now magazines can print from digital, with enough snaps of the shutter any of us could get the right shot.

And then there's Polly Borland. Borland shares the unassuming presence of these senior greats; she's a consummate portrait photographer – never failing to bring a fresh angle to an iconic face – but she's also a lot more: a photographer who uses her camera to create her own personal world, a dark fairytale, where sexuality is probed then exteriorised, and the synthetic drapery in the corner of a hotel room is just as lubricious as the flesh on display.

Borland, born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1958, was given her first camera, a Nikkor, by her father when she was 16. "I was studying art history at this hippie school," she says, "but I couldn't draw, so they said, why don't you make your own dark room? At around the same time, I saw the work of Diane Arbus and Weegee – and a little bit later an exhibition of Larry Clark's work. There were these photographs of kids on the edge, shooting up – dressing up. They were just tacked to the walls with drawing pins. I knew then that that was what I wanted to do."

Borland herself ran with a fairly bohemian crowd in and around the Melbourne art schools of the late 1970s. It was here that she met her husband – the film director John Hillcoat – and also Nick Cave, whom she has continued to photograph over the subsequent decades. Shortly after leaving art school, Borland began working for newspapers and magazines: "Editorial work came easily to me, but it was always a means to an end – it consumed me, it interested me, but I still found it creatively restrictive."

Coming to England in 1989, Borland soon built up a reputation as a maker of excitingly fresh – yet disturbing – images. I remember seeing her photographs for the first time, and thinking that with their saturated colours and supernova exposures, they seemed of a piece with Jane Campion's first feature, Sweetie (1989); and that here was another antipodean visual artist who took a world rendered banal by familiarity, then made it strange once more.

The magazine commissions – some of the best of which have appeared in this magazine – rolled in. Borland went to Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall and photographed the sex industry. She went with me, to California, to photograph cryonicists – those deluded people who believe their cadavers, if frozen after death, can be reanimated in the future. She photographed Page 3 girls at home, and she began to snap the soi-disant "great and good", culminating with being selected to do a portrait of the Queen for the 50th anniversary of her coronation.

But the work closest to Borland's heart – and in my view her finest – has been two collections of photographs: "The Babies" and "Bunny". "The Babies" (which was published as a limited-edition book) consisted of intimate and curiously non-judgmental photographs of fetishists who dress up as babies. Borland heard about the fetish through a friend, got in touch with the aptly named Hush-a-Bye Baby Club, and was commissioned by this magazine to tell the story. She was brilliantly successful at gaining the adult babies' trust, and what resulted was a unique insight into a hidden subculture.

Then, over the past three years, Borland began photographing a young woman called Gwen, whom she spotted in Brighton, where she now lives: "She stood out from the crowd," Borland says – and Gwen definitely would, being well over six feet in height. Artist and model began to engage in a form of creative play together – the results can be seen, in full, at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London, and are also available as a limited-edition art book. Some may find Borland's photographs of Gwen disturbing, with their explicit nudity, and use of props such as a horse's head mask, but for me they evoke a sense of wonder and vulnerability – certainly not what you expect from the average snapper.

'Bunny' is at Michael Hoppen Contemporary, 3 Jubilee Place, London SW3 (020-7352 3649; to 2 August. The book of the series is published by Other Criteria

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star