‘That did me in’: The celebrity portrait session that Polly Borland swore would be her last

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With a roll call of celebrity portraits that includes Jennifer Coolidge, Nick Cave, Michael Hutchence, Cate Blanchett, Monica Lewinsky, Donald Trump and even Queen Elizabeth II to her name, photographer Polly Borland is used to the pressure of capturing a moment in a tight time frame.

She can read a room instantly. Which is why when we meet for lunch in the Sydney CBD, the moment she walks into the buzzy but dark Ragazzi wine and pasta bar she recognises it as a photographer’s nightmare. It’s not great for a journalist either. Between diners’ chatter and loud music, the convivial conditions are not conducive to an audible conversation. So we move to a table outside. Then we move the table onto the street at Angel Place. All in the quest for better light for photographer Louise Kennerley. Borland’s a pro, she gets it.

Photographer Polly Borland knows the tricks of the trade as she is photographed at Ragazzi restaurant. She takes a red tartan scarf out of her handbag like she’s pulling a rabbit out of a hat.Credit: Louise Kennerley

“These are the hardest sort of situations … no one ever thinks of the photographer when it comes to interviews, they are always the last on the list,” she says. “I’ve been in such tight situations when I used to take photos … it was the pressure of the moment that did me in.”

As a Melbourne-born freelance photographer based first in Britain and now in the United States, she has worked for newspapers and magazines worldwide, including Britain’s The Independent, The Times, The Sunday Times and Newsweek, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Vogue in the US. She knows the tricks of the trade, which she reveals as she takes a red tartan scarf out of her handbag like she’s pulling a rabbit out of a hat. She stylishly wraps it around her neck, to liven up her all black outfit and Iris Apfel-esque dark glasses for the camera.

We are here to talk about her sculptural works in a new exhibition called Blob Out, which is on display at Zetland’s Sullivan + Strumpf gallery.

Burrata, pea puree with broad bean salsa at Ragazzi.Credit: Louise Kennerley

We’ll get to that later. First, over our shared entree of burrata, pea puree and broadbean salsa, we talk photos and why her brief pressure-cooker moment photographing the Queen for her golden jubilee on the throne in 2002 had unexpected consequences.

With her disarming candour and unaffected Australian accent, it is easy to see why Borland, now 64, had no trouble putting her subjects at ease. She’s one of seven children. Her architect father Kevin, once a member of the Communist Party, bartered his design talents to pay for a private primary school education for his offspring at Melbourne’s alternative Preshil School. She went to a public high school with Dogs in Space filmmaker Richard Lowenstein, and was so naughty her parents threatened to send her to boarding school. Fortunately, a teacher who spotted her potential converted a cupboard into a darkroom and suggested she take photos.

“I was 17 … never looked back.” From there, she went to art school, hung out in the punk scene, and met and then married filmmaker John Hillcoat, who was friends with singer Nick Cave.

“I had always been hugely ambitious, but I knew there was a ceiling here. I loved all those British magazines like The Face and Vogue and so I went with John to London at the end of the ′80s.”

After waitressing at first to pay the bills, she then got plenty of work on Fleet Street.

“I used to love photographing politicians because I was quite interested in power and how it affects people,” she says, reeling off a list of her impressions of those she’s shot. From former British prime ministers Tony Blair — “he did that wonderful thing when Princess Diana died, and coined the phrase ‘the people’s princess’ then he led us into the Iraq war” — and Gordon Brown, “way more charismatic in real life than in the media”. She went to Trump Tower in the early 2000s for The Times to photograph then businessman Donald Trump — “he was charming because he wanted a good photo, so he knew how to manipulate the situation” — and to Italy to photograph Silvio Berlusconi for Newsweek: “He didn’t come across as being a very nice person.”

Over our mains of ravioli of Jerusalem artichoke for me, and casarecce with braised lamb for Borland, it’s clear she’d rather talk politics – anything from climate change, the legacy of Australia’s offshore detention to her disappointment around the Voice to Parliament referendum – than about herself. But I press her to regale with more tell-it-all tales of life behind the lens.

“I’m fascinated by people, and up close you just have to be patient and nice to them and reassure them, but it is huge pressure to make someone look good, and you’ve got to please the paper or magazine you work for; I was stressed all the time.”

Ragazzi’s casarecce with braised lamb and ravioli of Jerusalem artichoke.Credit: Louise Kennerley

Her breakthrough from press work into the art world happened in 2000 with Polly Borland: Australians, an exhibition of 54 portraits of significant Australians who had made a contribution to British life at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Kylie Minogue, Barry Humphries, Cate Blanchett and Nick Cave all featured.

“With Nick, it’s now a 40-year friendship. But for the first 10 to 15 years, he didn’t trust me because he hated being photographed. Even though he has an incredibly striking look, he’s not really comfortable in front of the camera. He’s weirdly not photogenic. He’s striking but to get the ‘good-lookingness’ in the photo was quite a challenge.

“We lived around the corner from Nick and Susie [Cave] in Brighton at the same time as Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton moved there. We saw each other a lot and used to drive down to the seafront screaming, ‘we love Brighton’.”

Several of her portraits are in Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery including a naked shot of Germaine Greer.  ”It was her idea to take her clothes off,” says Borland, which resulted in a dispute with the feminist icon when The Sun newspaper offered to run it on page three – which they did without permission from either of them. “She can be quite contrarian.”

Borland went into Michael Hutchence’s British home in 1997 when he lived with Paula Yates for a photo that is in the Canberra collection. “That wasn’t long before he died. It was quite a strange and sad situation.”

And of course, the moment with the Queen haunts her still.

“I only got five minutes with her. The problem was, I had an argument with the minder about how many rolls of film I could use … he’d also given me the instruction to tell her what I was going to do but because I was so nervous, I couldn’t speak and then when I eventually did speak to her, it was like verbal diarrhoea. She was late, she’d been held up by her lunch with the Japanese prime minister. She just wanted to get the photo done. So she just wasn’t really listening to me and walked straight in front of the camera. He started timing, and I’m still talking. And then all of a sudden, the two minutes are up, and I’ve only got three minutes left.

“Luckily, I got two really good photos in two rolls of film. But it was so nerve-racking … I didn’t think I would have that reaction to her because I thought, she’s just another famous person. By this stage, I’d photographed so many famous people. The Queen photo did me in. It was the finish of my portrait career.”

It wasn’t just that she felt burnt out by the profession, she also had a new baby boy who was in the press office being looked after when she did the 2002 royal shoot. She decided to stay closer to home in Brighton, collaborating on a series of artistic photos with statuesque local actor Gwendolyn Christie for three years before she became famous in Game of Thrones as Brienne of Tarth. Borland focused more on artistic photographic work, notably her Morph and Nudies series, and a book on “Adult Babies” which shocked many, but prompted a friendship with writer Susan Sontag, whom she also photographed.

Borland moved to Hollywood in 2011 for her husband Hillcoat’s film career, where he is represented by the prestigious talent agency CAA. He’s directed the 2005 film written by Nick Cave, The Proposition, starring Guy Pearce and Emily Watson, and in 2009 directed Cormac McCarthy’s The Road starring Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron.

Sculptures by Polly Borland, in her show Blob Out at Sullivan + Strumpf gallery.Credit: Aaron Anderson

They now live on Mulholland Drive in a home where the portrait of the Queen hangs in her bathroom.

Borland does occasionally accept portrait work as she did earlier this year with Harper’s Bazaar to shoot White Lotus star Jennifer Coolidge in a Los Angeles studio.

The bill for lunch at Ragazzi, with Polly Borland.

“Jennifer’s very funny, down to earth and been around the block … Because success has come to her later in life, it hasn’t gone to her head,” Borland says, happy to take on a project with a woman of a similar age and outlook.

Since lockdown, where she and her family were stranded in Byron Bay awaiting some paperwork for their green cards to be processed, her focus has been on sculpture. They stayed for 18 months, lived in six different places while her son completed his last year of American high school online and Hillcoat got work on film projects in Sydney. She became friendly with Lismore Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens, who introduced her to some Brisbane foundry owners at a talk in Byron by artist Lindy Lee.

Ever since, she’s been hooked creating cast-aluminium sculptures which she finishes with automotive paint.

This year, she has had sculpture exhibitions in galleries in Melbourne, New York, Los Angeles and Sydney, and in May took part in Marfa Invitational, an art fair in Texas, which annually hosts a sort of South by Southwest style showcase for sculpture.

“Photography was always meant to be a means to an end. I wanted to do my own work and exhibiting but I got so involved in photography I didn’t have time for artistic work,” says Borland, who cites photographer Diane Arbus as an important influence.

Although he died in 2000, she says she now better understands her father who designed Melbourne’s Harold Holt Memorial Pool, and along with his Melbourne University architect friends won the competition to design Melbourne’s 1956 Olympic swimming pool, and his humanitarian approach to life.

“It makes sense that I would be making sculpture because I was making sculpture and then photographing it in the past. And also my father being an architect, he was a 3D thinker. I always found photography a bit creatively limiting in the end. Whereas sculpture is infinite.

“Sculpture is very much in the moment. Like jazz, it is a freestyle art form where you make it up as you go along. It’s a bit like taking a photo because it is in the moment. But it’s a 3D moment,” she says.

Polly Borland’s Blob Out is at Zetland’s Sullivan + Strumpf gallery until December 16.

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