How We Met: Gwendoline Christie & Polly Borland
'When my boyfriend saw the photos, he was horrified. He didn't speak to me for two days'
Sunday 29 June 2008
Polly Borland is a portrait photographer. The 49-year-old was born in Melbourne, Australia, but has lived in Britain since 1989. Her subjects have included Sir Kingsley Amis, Cate Blanchett and the Queen. She lives in Brighton with her husband and son
I had seen Gwendoline walking in Brighton and was drawn to her. She's over 6'5" in heels and very striking. I couldn't get her out of my head. She was working at a funky interiors boutique in Brighton called Pussy; I was looking for a new project in 2002 and realised I needed to track down this girl to see if she'd do some photos.
I made a beeline for the shop and there she was, surrounded by men, showing them some photos of herself at a recent party. I told her who I was and asked if she would be interested in me taking some photos of her, and she immediately said, "As you can see, I'm an exhibitionist, so I'd love that."
When we started, I wanted to do a series of photos of her as a 1950s pin-up but gradually it turned into something else. Initially with her, her height was the attraction but then it became a creative journey and we formed a deep bond.
Gwendoline is very funny, charismatic, sensitive and loveable. She's attractive in every sense; she's like a magnet for people. I'm pretty short, so us standing next to each other is something to see. But I love that she's really tall and that she revels in it.
The idea behind the photos I took of her was about taking the notion of a pin-up and turning it into more representational forms of the female, such as the Playboy Bunny. Then we thought of other things, such as a cat and a horse and other animals that are linked to female identity.
For one iconographic picture I put her in a home-made bunny costume (pictured). She wore thick pink ballet tights on her legs, arms and head, I drew the eyes with lipstick and the mouth with eyeliner and we stuffed the tights on her head with socks for "ears". We made it up as we went along.
The photos were very collaborative: a lot of the ideas were Gwen's and she would often bring props of her own. But it did take me about six months to persuade her to take off her clothes. It took some time for her to trust me and she had to think about the fact that she wanted to be an actress. But once she got into it she was 100 per cent on board.
I spent about four or five years taking photos of Gwen so we had a lot of time to get to know each other. Now, we talk a lot on the phone – we get quite deep – and see each other for lunch and the openings of exhibitions. Now that I'm not taking photos of her any more, I just want to nurture this project – and our friendship.
Gwendoline Christie is a British actress. She graduated from drama school in 2005 and has appeared in the RSC's Great Expectations and Pravda. Last year she played the queen in Cymbeline at the Barbican. She lives in London
I am 6'3" or 6'41/2", depending on when you measure me. My parents treated my height as a wonderful thing to be celebrated, but also normal. I love being tall as you literally look at life from a different perspective: it's easier to breeze through life's turmoils; there's more room to breathe.
When Polly came into the shop and wanted to take photos of me I just thought, "Finally!" Being, as some might see it, exceptionally tall for a woman, it's difficult to get people to see beyond that, and Polly does. It's very difficult for me to ever be as intelligent as I am tall, or as beautiful or, in fact, to be anything as much as I am tall.
Polly said my height would be a feature of the photographs but she was interested in other things as well; I don't think my height comes across too much in the pictures; I sort of fell in love with her for that.
I don't think I've ever surrounded myself with perverse or exotic images and I can imagine that some people might find some of the photographs quite arresting. An ex-boyfriend of mine certainly did. We were living together when Polly and I started working together so he knew about the project but when he saw the photos he was horrified. He didn't recognise me in them and I think he was disturbed to see the recorded visual evidence of the depths of a relationship he was no part of. He didn't speak to me for two days. But my current boyfriend thinks they're great.
What I found terrifying early on was being confronted by my own nakedness. When I first saw the pictures of me nude I was appalled: I hadn't any experience of looking at naked pictures of me before. But now, after three years of drama school and all the psychological introspection that goes with that, I can look at the photos and think, "Wow, that looks great."
Because my body is so large I wanted to completely come to terms with it and Polly gave me that opportunity. I think that's why my relationship with her has become one of the best and most precious I've had. We talk about everything, and I never feel judged by her. And although I don't actively go to her with my problems, she gives me the best advice of anyone I know.
Polly Borland's exhibition Bunny is at the Michael Hoppen Gallery, 3 Jubilee Place, London SW3 until 2 August (020 7352 3649, www.michaelhoppengallery.com). A book of the series is published by Other Criteria (www.othercriteria.com)
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