Most photographers love having the ability to hide behind the camera, relishing the agency it affords them. Melbourne-born, Los Angeles-based Polly Borland isn’t immune to these pleasures. “I like photography because it’s about control,” Borland says on a Zoom call from her native Australia, where she’s spent the entirety of the pandemic.
Though Borland devoted the first three decades of her career to crafting decadent, erotic, and uncannily hypnotic images of others, she’s rarely trained her lens on herself. For her breakout series, The Babies, she documented a group of infantilist fetishists. After discovering actress Gwendoline Christie in a Brighton boutique called Pussy, she made the future Game of Thrones actress the subject of the visual fairytale, Bunny. And for her Smudge, Pupa, and Morph series, she ensconced various models in layers of nude and high-chroma pantyhose.
“The reason I wouldn’t have done it when I was younger was that I was too vain,” she says of turning the camera on herself. But after being stuck in Melbourne while trying to get her green card sorted, Borland and her family—her husband is director John Hillcoat and her son Louie, aka Sleepie Louie, is an aspiring hip-hop artist and CalArts student—they decided to take their first vacation in years in the lush seaside enclave of Byron Bay.
Once Borland realized that the isolated New South Wales beach town wasn’t as hard hit by COVID as places like Los Angeles, she started working in earnest on a selfie-inspired series she’d begun while traveling in Greece. “It was like pulling teeth, this body of work. I’m usually looking through the camera and I’ve got complete control. But I kind of knew I was going to need to use the iPhone,” says Borland, who had always shot film before this project. “I didn’t know how to do it in a way where I had some objectivity. I was using my hand and getting the camera pointed at me or the iPhone and eventually I got a selfie stick and that kind of worked a little bit better, but not really, and then I brought my selfie stick with me to Australia and I started using it as a tripod and that meant I had more control over the arrangement of the body.”
Borland and her L.A. dealer, Nino Mier, who will open an exhibition featuring 14 of the artist’s new photos at his latest space in West Hollywood on Saturday, May 15, consider this recent body of work, dubbed Nudie, to be the most revealing of her career, both literally and figuratively.
“It’s the best work I’ve ever done,” says Borland.
This new series of confounding, compelling, and closely cropped self-portraits of her naked body was created by Borland contorting her skin into undulating landscapes that look like classical, if slightly psychedelic, statuary. It’s a study in radical vulnerability and the death of ego as it relates to the ageism and sexism implicit in selfie culture. And it’s actually quite a labor-intensive labor of love.
“It’s really hard because I’m having to balance. Basically I ate my way through COVID, the lockdown and after, and it’s only now that I’ve been able to do these yoga intensives that ironically all the fat is going,” says Borland. “I was fatter than I’ve ever been before. People say, ‘You’re so brave.’ I don’t think it’s brave it was just the next step. But my husband can’t even look at them and John isn’t fainthearted about anything. I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I have to do this, and I’m doing it.’”
We talked to Borland about the experience of turning the lens on herself.
Do you think you’ve always been working toward this, that every body of work was a self-portrait in a way? Even though you’re photographing other people, it’s all sort of about you, to me anyway.
No, definitely. I think the main point of it was that I felt there’s some resentment by one of the people I’ve photographed and she felt taken advantage of or embarrassed that she had been naked even though it was really her decision. It ended up being really quite complicated. I read somewhere that when someone sits for you it’s like a transaction and unless it’s very clear what the transaction is, what happens is people have different expectations as to what the outcome is going to be.
Welcome to journalism.
Exactly, so the whole thing becomes complicated with psychology and desire. The crux of the matter is that it was time for me to do what I’d done to others. I’ve never been comfortable in my own skin, never felt comfortable in my own body. I was a chubby child. I was one of six sisters, all slender and beautiful. My mother had a food disorder, she was virtually anorexic. She smoked and drank and didn’t eat. Fed all of us, she was a brilliant cook, but I was a chubby child. I still am a comfort eater. I used to be called “Fatty” in the family even though I wasn’t fat, I was chubby, and I think that I just never felt comfortable. This new work isn’t sexualized at all and a lot of my other work is and people have asked me about the sexy stuff in my work and I cannot figure that out. I don’t know where that comes from. I’ve tried to analyze it, but with this work that is non-existent. And a lot of feminist women have said the sexy stuff in my work is not about the male gaze, it’s much more a woman’s view. My work is gritty. It’s not pretty pretty. For me, I feel like I’ve got nothing more to hide. My life has been spent on hiding the fact that I did not feel attractive.
You say that but you’re a style icon to so many people—maybe that’s a separate identity from this Nudie work. There’s the iconography, and maybe this is a totally different thing.
I think it’s me using my body as sculpture. I think the work is very sculptural and I think probably after Morph, where I dressed up [model] Sibylla [Phipps], who is in all the costumes, it was really soft sculpture. There were reveals of body parts through the stocking fabric, but I think it was time to get rid of all that it was a stripping back of all the props and there’s the flesh. I started shooting this a few years ago but I hadn’t really nailed it, so I was intermittently shooting it.
Did you start shooting it in L.A.?
No, it was in Greece. I started shooting shadows of myself in Antiparos. I continued shooting these shadows and that’s where the idea came from, me photographing my own shadow and then it came into this idea of selfies. First it was random, looking for a way in, and over time I realized what was working, which is, “What you’re looking at isn’t what you’re looking at.” You can probably tell what part of the body it is, but what angle is it?
That takes away any gaze or any sexuality because when you first sent them to me absent of any text explaining it I wasn’t sure at first if I was looking at a human or some other sculptural form.
Yeah [laughs] the ones I like the best are the weirdest.
The one with the fist smashing into your skin is amazing.
Well that I took very early on, that I took in L.A. and that became the beginning.
So what the hell are you doing to create these forms. If you step back and let the body come to it sort of has this weird, intense yoga sensibility.
Yeah, I started doing all these yoga intensives here because COVID isn’t as bad where I am as it is in the rest of the world. I started yoga in lockdown over Zoom with a yoga teacher in Melbourne and I’m in New South Wales. It’s ashtanga yoga and it’s the one thing I managed to do in lockdown and I just kept going. I wasn’t doing any exercise and I wasn’t even motivated to do walks and I’m in a really beautiful part of New South Wales.
Have you been there the whole pandemic?
Yeah, we came here for a holiday waiting for our green card, and then the green card didn’t arrive. One of our documents were out of date, and this guy sent us away and said it would take three weeks. This was the beginning of March and I said, “We’ve got to get back to L.A.” In actual fact all the governments knew what was coming and nobody was being told. We went back to Melbourne where mine and my husband’s families were and I said, “Let’s not stay here, let’s go on a holiday, we havent’ been on a holiday in years and we’ve never been to Byron Bay so we came to Byron Bay and a few days later lockdown happened. Byron Bay is a seaside town and it’s attracted a lot of different types of people. Every time we went to get food we put a mask on disinfect all the packaging. We were in a six-week lockdown and then slowly we reemerged and it took a while to realize that COVID hadn’t really hit here.
Because you’re so isolated.
Isolated and Australia locked the borders down. They locked Chinese people out early on and then hotel quarantine was put in place right at the beginning, so they closed all the borders. Australia is very good at that because it’s one of the most racist countries. It’s really well hidden. Everyone thinks Australia is like Canada. It’s not. It’s got some of the harshest immigration laws of any country. They’ve built offshore detention centers for people who have tried to get here by boat and there’s no hope to get processed they can only go back to the countries where they may be killed. And then recently they’ve brought a lot of asylum seekers to Australia for medical care and they’ve been put in hotels, in locked rooms with no fresh air for 24 hours a day and they still haven’t received any medical attention. It’s against all human rights. Amnesty International, the UN, have all condemned Australia for these practices. I just found out the other day that Australia is not part of the UN Human Rights chapter and they’ve made up their own laws and they don’t seem to care. It’s this island mentality and the population has been brought up on this fear of invasion even though the white, European Australians are the original invaders. It’s unbelievable and the indigenous Australians are still treated despicably and there’s never been a reckoning. In school I was brought up thinking it was a peaceful transfer of land. No, it wasn’t. It’s very like America.
It’s interesting because while you’re stuck there in that idyllic but also fraught political climate there is this reckoning taking place in America, and very dramatically in Los Angeles, which is at the center of the COVID and social justice movements. I know you tried to get back to L.A., but do you think this work was made possible by being in this isolation there?
I tried immediately to start working but we were pretty traumatized being in so much fear because it was a total unknown as to what would happen with COVID. I got to work immediately but it wasn’t really until the last six months, maybe four months even, that I really started hitting it out of the park. The whole body of work, excuse the pun, it was really hard to do. I couldn’t get control or predetermine or even imagine what I was going to get. I couldn’t tell what was working and what wasn’t. It was just really difficult to do. Half the work was produced in the last four months.
You started drawing, too.
It was my first time drawing and I started doing art classes. When everything started opening up someone told me about this art school, the Byron School of Art, that’s about three-quarters of an hour away from me. A friend was giving me a tour of all the schools and galleries around the area, but they had painting and ceramics classes. I’m pretty well-known in Australia, but I went in and they’re all working artists, and I said, “I hear you do art classes, I’d like to take a painting class.” And they started laughing at me. I said, “No, I’m serious.”
I could imagine the looks on their faces. Do you like it?
It’s fantastic. It’s in this incredible old warehouse and you can do one-off, six-week courses. So I signed up for this oil painting course and it was still life and I was like, “I don’t know about this guys.” And they were like, “Just do it, it’s going to be fun.” So basically i’m now in my second semester and I’m doing a painting course with one of the owners of the school. He’s an abstract painter. Still life wasn’t really my bag, but I’m sure I learned something. I’d never really used any paint before. This one I’m using gouache and it’s abstract and I absolutely fucking love it, Michael. I’m not a painter but the teacher said, “All you need is to understand the materiality of paint, what it can do, and you’re going to be able to paint.” I love photography, but I love documentary photography. I suppose that relates to what I’m doing now. I’ve gotten rid of all the props. The Babies is still one of my most groundbreaking bodies of work.
Well, your work seems to delight in exposing these subcultures or secret desires and maybe, in this case, this secret terrain of your body. But this is the first body of work you’ve done digitally. How do you think this new work relates to The Babies or shooting Nick Cave or the Queen of England?
Obviously it’s a play on the whole selfie culture. They’re not really selfies. It’s me, but are they selfies? I think it’s me exposing myself actually. I think all my work on an aesthetic level, there’s a simplicity, there’s almost a classical framing, so I think I’m always getting rid of mess from the frame. So I can see the link aesthetically. I got stuck in the portrait thing. In art school the photography department I was over influenced by what people told me. One of the lecturers told me, “Oh you can do fashion.” Portraits always came easy to me because I was always interested in other people. I was involved in the punk scene in Melbourne, but I was also an observer. I was photographing artists as well for some alternative magazine. I shot Tony Clark wrapped in a sheet like a Greek statue and Nick Cave saw that photo and sought me out to photograph him. I started photographing Nick for myself after that and then he collaborated with my husband, John Hillcoat, on Ghosts…of the Civil Dead, which is about super prisons and the manipulation of the guards and how to control the inmate population through mind games. It’s really wild, it’s like my Babies. It’s gritty and hard-hitting and it’s an amazing film. We moved to England and we lived near him and that sort of cemented the relationship and I became the go-to photographer for him. I worked all over the world for The New Yorker and Vogue but that was always a means to an end. When I photographed the Babies for the Independent it was sort of a photography magazine back in those days.
Well in Susan Sontag’s essay in the Babies book she has this line, “Close is ugly,” and I think that could be the Trojan Horse M.O. of what you do. It’s sort of like a drug hit, this proximity or forced intimacy, and you might be scared or tripped out at first, but then you’re kind of hooked on this new sensation.
I think that’s because people have to figure out what they’re looking at. Now I’ve gone into more abstracted versions of that and, again, I think for me when I discovered the photos of Larry Clark at the Photographers Gallery, during this explosion of artists and creatives coming together in Melbourne during art school, it was truly shocking and I remember being thrilled by it. They were black and white and shittily printed and had all these fluff marks and scratches and they were pinned to the walls, no framing, and of course Larry Clark being Larry Clark, there were people shooting dope. I remember thinking this is what photography should be: it should be about revealing things that you haven’t seen before and there was a whole debate in the early-’80s about getting the perfect print and the greyscale. The landscape photographers at the school were all concerned about that. These photos did not feel deliberate, it was like they just didn’t give a shit. It added to the shock value. On some level I wanted my work to do the same thing getting toward Babies. There’s a side of me that’s the fashionista and always wanting to be nice coming from a nice, but not-so-nice middle-class family. We were considered a bit wild my family because my mother and father were quite liberal and part of the Melbourne creative scene. My father was this incredible architect and he’d been brought up as dirt poor and he educated his way out of poverty. His father was a dust man and his mother was a cleaner. He was very charismatic and they were very gorgeous and in a way I had to get out of Melbourne because it’s a very competitive and stifling place. But I was brought up in this chaotic, seven kids household. I’m the third. On one hand I was brought up with these suburban middle class values, everything had to be nice. But my dad bought me a camera. He sent me to this hippie school. This hippie teacher set up a dark room in a cupboard because I said, “I can’t draw, I can’t paint.” And I fell in love with taking photos and I was looking at The Face and all those youth culture magazines and I was working for Australian Vogue the minute I left college. Interestingly, I’ve reonnected with the art director who hired me, Christina Zimpel. We found each other on Instagram.
Doesn’t she make paintings of you?
Yes, she’s amazing. She really gave me my first magazine break. So this is a full circle creatively. I’m doing art classes again.
You did photographs of yourself in college, right?
I did a few but this is the first big effort to photograph myself. I love this idea that close is ugly, because most of my work is ugly but then lit beautifully and the colors and the content and subject matter has a grittiness. They’re ugly beautiful and I think I’ve achieved that in this body of work. I’m interested in the sculptural aspect of this work and I think the stockings are done. I think it’s the best body of work I’ve done…for now. I haven’t figured the next step out.
Maybe you’ll be a painter next?
Oh my god, I love the painting. Photography came very easy and it was easy for me to build my own thing with photography and I do feel that everyone is a painter now, but having said that I’ve probably got the images in my head and just I just need to figure out what I want to do with the paint. For me, it’s always been about originality. People say that doesn’t exist, and maybe it doesn’t exist, but an original vision does. The people that stand out to me are the ones that are doing it their own way on a technical and in an imaginative way. If I can’t achieve that in painting but maybe in the pursuing of it you find out if you can do it or not. Of course in the ceramics class all I did was nude figures with holes in every part of their body. I looked at everyone in the class and said, “Sorry, I can only do disturbing.”
Polly Borland: Nudie, May 15–June 19 at Nino Mier Gallery, 7327 Santa Monica Blvd.