Dignified Dysmorphia

Polly Borland photographs adults as transvestite babies, and Berlusconi. But what is it all about?

Images reproduced with kind permission of Polly Borland and Mark Vessey

Images reproduced with kind permission of Polly Borland and Mark Vessey

“It’s a long time that the camera has been bringing us news about zanies and pariahs, their miseries and their quirks. Showing the banality of the non-normal. Making voyeurs of us all…But this is particularly gifted, authoritative, intelligent work. Borland’s pictures seem very knowing, compassionate; and too close, too familiar, to suggest common or mere curiosity.” In her essay on Polly Borland’s photography series, The Babies, which documented various groups of adults with a fetish for dressing, acting and living as babies, Susan Sontag pinpoints the delicacy and sensitivity in portraying such outlandish and daring topics that has landed Borland her highly esteemed reputation in the art world today.

I catch Polly Borland just before she jumps on a plane from England back to Los Angeles after a fleeting visit. Nonetheless there’s something calm and lulling that draws you into feeling like she has all the time in the world to discuss transvestite adult-babies, the Queen, and other such facets of her long and colourful career as a photographer. Borland – a mini, red-bobbed woman, with a whopping pair of thick-rimmed glasses, has a distinctively compelling accent, described by one Australian as “Borland-talk” that you can’t help but engage with.

Leaving Australia in 1989 with film director husband John Hillcoat (The Road), her move, though potentially an illogical one at first, has certainly paid off. Of course, it necessitated a few years of door-knocking to rebuild her thriving career as a portrait photographer, and segway into art photography. Borland recounts this era very systematically: “It took three years. My first job was with Tatler, and my second was with Elle magazine and my third was with Harpers & Queen. I worked with Jessamy Calkin; we teamed up – she was writing and I was doing photos. My real break came when I got in with the Independent Sunday Magazine and Saturday Magazine. Mainly I did portraits for them but I also did reportages – I did ballroom dancing before Strictly Come Dancing; I did nudists, I went and visited all the nudist camps… I just loved it.”

With firmness in her tone, Borland is more than accustomed to dealing with a challenged audience, and is confident in standing her ground: “You’ve got to know when you believe enough in something to make a stand and in terms of artistic criticism you’ve just got to have a lot of self belief.
“One thing I did was when there was the show at the National Portrait Gallery here – I had to do a show titled Australia. The Australian government wanted to turn it into a PR event for the then-Australian Prime Minister, John Howard. I basically boycotted the event – they thought I was going to turn up and I didn’t – and instead I got my assistant to distribute press releases about why I wouldn’t meet John Howard, who basically refused to apologise to the aboriginal people for the genocide that had occurred throughout history. I got a lot of flack for that but I also got quite a few pats on the back.”

The way she puts it, it’s as if she took up the camera by accident: “I did Art History in Australia, I couldn’t really draw but I loved it so my art teacher said let’s set up a dark room and you can take photos. That really helped start it off. So, I was about 17 when I started to take my first serious pictures and haven’t stopped from there”. Indeed, once things got rolling in the UK she was almost unstoppable, and soon her portraiture had captured the attention of everyone, from celebrities to politicians worldwide, including the likes of Kylie Minogue (a fellow Aussie expat), David Miliband, Gordon Brown, and long time, Melbourne-bred friend, and collaborator, Nick Cave. “I think photography, if you’re in a sort of position, is like a passport into other people’s lives, you get a little feel and it’s really great to meet people that way to take their portrait, you know you get to know a little bit about them.” She ganders comfortably through a few star-studded memories, with a kind of arresting detail and matter-of-fact tone:
“I’ve photographed Berlusconi. He was like photographing the Mafia, he was pretty hardcore. He did the job, but you could tell there was sort of a lot of things going on that weren’t particularly that pleasant I suppose you could say. But he was really nice – no, not really nice, but he was another incredible experience. I actually love doing the politicians because I’m really interested in power and how power corrupts.”
“Of course,” she adds, “the most significant highlight would have been the Queen, which came much later.”

In 2002 Borland was selected as one of 11 photographers from Britain and the Commonwealth to profile Queen Elizabeth for the 50th anniversary of her coronation. Given a five-minute slot, “a reckie around Buckingham Palace” to pick a room, a choice of outfits, and the option of corgis (which she very reluctantly turned down), Borland’s end result – a striking, close up, almost claustrophobic gold glitter and royal blue portrait – is today iconic. The gold was not necessarily planned from the off – “that was a visual device that was actually a solution to a problem, and in a way that’s what creativity is – it’s creative solutions to logistical visual problems. I was probably one of the few people that had asked the question: ‘if need be can I bring my own backdrop in?’” And just as well, as she received news that her room of choice was unavailable (“instead they offered me the most boring room I’d seen that day – the room where she signs all her documents”). “I had done Peter Mandelson with a shiny background. It’d been a way to make a standard portrait of a famous person into something more iconic and interesting – and also the juxtaposition between a supposedly sort of straight public figure and add a bit of razzmatazz to it. I was interested in the juxtaposition of what would happen if you put a sort of straight person or a dignitary in front of something that was not conventional or that had kind of showman-like connotations to it. I think it was Peter Lilley actually I’d done in front of a disco curtain – he was the first politician I did. So I was interested in sort of subverting what I was photographing.”

For Borland, the image was a success – although a second backdrop (a deep blue Marimekko screen print fabric, with large blue flowers) was not quite to the Queen’s liking:
“She saw the gold backdrop first and I had the floral one behind, because it was literally five minutes so I had to have everything set up ready to go – two cameras, two lights, two backdrops, and it just meant she had to stand in one place and once i’d finished the gold we had to move one of the cameras, move on of the lights, move the gold around. When she saw the floral one she went ‘OOHH’ – like that.” Wheeling through the story animatedly with a detectable smile in her voice, she teeters on a laugh. “Later it didn’t actually get officially approved. A year later the Sunday Times Magazine ran a story on the unofficial portraits of the Queen and she allowed that portrait to be used and it was on the cover.”
It hints at the comical side to her work, she smirks, “the bobble man” in Smudge “reminds me- dare I say it- of syphillis”.
And so Borland reached a summit, so to speak, of the portrait world.

“Now I hardly ever do portraits unless it’s someone I know or a friend, like Nick Cave, you know, people I know. My main area of interest is my own personal work which I now exhibit and the reason for that is because you’ve got the freedom to be more creative – the sky’s the limit, so my art work is definitely more interesting and, in a sense, more important to me now.

“The portraiture was great but I kind of got to a point where I thought ‘well how many famous people can you meet?’ It becomes after a while a little bit soulless as well because you are getting an idea of someone sort of like an inkling of what they’re like and who they really are but I like more depth and I like relationships to be not so, kind of, wham bam thank you mam, which is really what a portrait is: you go in, you have an hour at the most if you’re lucky – or a day, half a day – and I just think relationships developed over time are just more satisfying, interesting and have more depth, which is really what happens in my personal work, you know it’s an ongoing to a certain extent collaborative process.”

In a forward for Smudge – Borland’s latest, and, in her own words “probably some of the most difficult, challenging work I’ve done – people found it disturbing, they’re not pretty pictures” – one of the book’s three subjects, Nick Cave, says: “I am struck by Polly’s deep love for her subjects and the dignity that exists in their dysmorphia. Because her pictures are never voyeuristic, never observational and never merely shocking. Rather, Polly seems to me to be shooting into a distorted mirror and simply bringing back heartbreaking refracted images of herself.”

Indeed, Bunny was the product of years of photographing Gwendoline Christie – having been struck by her towering physique seeing her around and about in Brighton – and although The Babies documented a much bigger group of people, Borland is keen to stress that: “I did actually kind of identify with them. I think they understood that I understood them. They said it was all about motherhood and because my mother died when I was quite young I sort of understood that so there was kind of a rapport there anyway.”

Now, having relocated to Los Angeles, for husband Hillcoat’s work, Borland’s next working relationship will have to be taking the form of something rather less animate: a doll.
“I’ve decided, because I don’t know that many people in America, I’m going to handmade a kind of weird doll and do all the things to it that I would have done if I knew someone really well and could take photos of them. I’m going to sort of dress it up maybe a bit like how the smudge people are dressed up and use mirrors and things like that. It enables me to do it in my own home – because here I don’t have a studio – so it kind of makes everything a lot more miniature and, yeah, it’s a logistic solution to a kind of problem of relocating and not knowing anyone in.”

She repeats again an ethos that seems to have carried Borland’s multi-national career: “Photography gives you a passport to the world. My choice probably would not be Los Angeles but in actual fact my spiritual centre is within me. I think your home is where your loved ones are, and really my home is with John and Louis [her son]. I can create my work wherever I am.”

Reeling out memories and images of the 60s storybook that’s inspired her doll venture, Borland seems to already be creating her next little world.