Photographer Polly Penrose’s latest project, ‘A Body of Work’, is a series of nude self portraits, celebrating the female body for its strength, agility and beauty, while capturing a subtle touch of humour.
The project, the entire of which Polly shot on self timer, is dictated by the locations in the shot; the images show her body’s response to a space and its contents.
Polly, who has worked with such greats as Tim Walker, has been taking self portraits for several years now, however it wasn’t until she entered a competition coordinated by the London Photographic Association (which she won) that they were seen by eyes other than her own.
We caught up with the photographer to find out more about ‘A Body of Work’ ahead of Polly’s forthcoming exhibition at Mother London.
YOUR EXHIBITION ‘A BODY OF WORK’ IS A RESPONSE TO A SPACE AND ITS CONTENTS – HOW DID YOU SETTLE ON THIS THEME?
It evolved as I went along. I realised that it was what I was doing, rather than having set out to do it. I was just following a compulsion.
HOW DID YOU CHOOSE YOUR SPACES AND CONTENTS, WAS THERE SPECIFIC CRITERIA THAT EACH HAD TO MEET?
The beauty for me in what I do is in the element of ‘chance’ involved. The location, often being an unknown quantity, adds something to the pictures, opportunism is an important part of the creative process. It’s like making a meal out of things left in the fridge rather than going to the supermarket to buy the perfect ingredients. The locations are found through personal contacts, houses that are waiting to be redeveloped, people’s offices, empty flats, peoples gardens. I always take my camera with me when I go somewhere just incase the opportunity presents it’s self.
THE PROCESS ITSELF SEEMS TO BE A VERY DIFFICULT ONE, TALK US THROUGH HOW YOU ACTUALLY TAKE THE IMAGES.
It’s absolutely exhausting. I’m always alone in the locations, sometimes a bit scared – it’s unnerving being naked in a strange place. I prowl around the space climbing on to things, wrapping myself around things and when I find what will ‘work’ physically and visually I set up my camera and get to work. I often think I must look like a visual version of a broken record – getting into the pose, (‘I have to feel’ my way into it as I can’t see what I’m taking), coming out of the pose and running to my camera to see if it’s working; do I need to point that toe? Press my back further into the wall? Bring my hip closer to the edge of the chair? Then back into the adjusted pose. I can go from camera to pose and back perhaps 50 or 60 times, which, when you’re hanging off a fireplace can take its toll physically.
WHAT DO YOU FEEL THE LABORIOUS PROCESS ADDS TO THE FINAL IMAGE, IF ANYTHING?
It’s always the pictures towards the end of the shoot that make it into the edit. This is because I’ve got there, I’ve perfected it, my body has remembered all the things I need it to. I couldn’t get to that stage without having gone through the process. I’ve tried it with a remote but it’s the repetition and checking each shot that works best. I’ve likened it to ‘hammering my self into the landscape of the room’ and think it’s just that, you don’t get the nail in the wall with just one knock. Perhaps it’s more like chiseling. By the time I’ve repeated the process sixty times the pose is in my body’s memory, it comes naturally and perhaps that shows in the picture, along with a bit of triumphant exhaustion.
HOW DO YOU FEEL EMOTION IS PORTRAYED IN EACH IMAGE?
The conscious choice to omit my face places the emphasis on my body – the shape, tension, composition as a whole communicates the emotional atmosphere of the image. Emotional content is not considered when I’m shooting, it becomes interesting on reflection that they contain a great deal of emotional resonance. Each image is a spontaneous response, yet in this response both the immediate and circumstantial emotional strands of my life are captured in a raw state.
EACH IMAGE REPRESENTS A PHASE IN YOUR LIFE – HOW DO YOU MATCH EACH EMOTION FROM A SPECIFIC EVENT WITH A SPACE, WHAT KIND OF CONSIDERATION GOES INTO THAT?
None. But looking back at the pictures it’s obvious that what’s going on in my life infiltrates the pictures. The one that speaks the loudest on this level is the picture of me in the garden. I was unhappy and exhausted. I could have chosen many places in the garden that would have produced an entirely different picture, I could have hung from trees, involved bright colourful flowers, but I ended up with a shot where I look almost dead, like a spent greyhound in a flowery grave. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but it’s the picture I took and it expresses perfectly how I was feeling at that time.
YOU ARE LAID BARE EMOTIONALLY AND PHYSICALLY IN THE IMAGES – DOES THAT ADD A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF PRESSURE WHEN SHOWING YOUR WORK?
I’ve never exhibited before so we’ll see.
YOU DIDN’T SHOW ANYONE YOUR SELF PORTRAITS UNTIL ENTERING THE LONDON PHOTOGRAPHIC ASSOCIATION COMPETITION – WHAT WERE YOUR RESERVATIONS?
It took me a while to find my confidence in the images, for them to accrue momentum and speak to me about their motivation as a body of work. Winning the competition allowed me to believe in their power and their potential.
WHAT CHARACTERISTICS DO YOU THINK THAT EACH OF YOUR SELF PORTRAITS NEEDS?
There’s not really a recipe. Some just work and others don’t. Sometimes I can’t find the shot between my body and the environment, this is mostly because I can’t ‘fit’ anywhere to create a dynamic or expressive pose. I think it’s important that I’m not trying too hard, that it feels immediate and not too considered or contrived.
YOU HAVE WORKED WITH TIM WALKER, WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNT ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY FROM WATCHING HIM?
Working with Tim taught me a lot. Mainly just to get on with it – don’t procrastinate. Love what you do and embrace it wholeheartedly. He believes (and constantly proves) that anything is possible. Don’t create obstacles for yourself, create ways of making things happen. When I moaned to him about not having the time, money or contacts to find places to shoot, his response was, ‘Be resourceful’! And that was that. The next day I called the local pub to see if I could shoot in their function room.
IT’S OF COURSE IMPOSSIBLE TO UNIVERSALLY QUANTIFY BUT TO YOU, WHAT MAKES ‘GOOD ART’?
In the context of this question my response is in relation to photography rather than other realms of visual art. Good photography is for me something that I want to look at, that creates a sense of wonder, that I can’t take my eyes off. I like being affected directly through my eyes and my heart, rather than involving my intellect too much.
‘A Body Of Work’ will be on show in the reception of Mother London from 28th April until 9th May. For appointments to view email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to visit Polly’s website.