Sheer Polly: Will Self salutes Polly Borland

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
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The Independent Culture

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