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

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before