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; www.michaelhoppencontemporary.com) to 2 August. The book of the series is published by Other Criteria

Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?