Autobiographical photography is often understood as an attempt to control self-image and take possession of one’s own story. However, en route to creating this visible self-design, the lines between fact and fiction can become blurred.
The work of contemporary photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten falls somewhere in-between the reality of her personal histories of female adolescence and familial relationships, and the spectacle of image-making with its alternative narratives and heightened emotive situations. She is not concerned with a search for truth, but rather storytelling, with surreal and fictive elements, welcoming interpretation and understanding that absolute authority over an image is an illusion. The photographs are therefore not offered as evidence, but as metaphor – of what was, what might have been, or what cannot be said.
She photographs real relationships in her Mothers and Daughters series, but the subjects have been asked to act, presenting situations relating to Fullerton-Batten’s past. She presents real ‘street-cast’ people, such as the curvy naked bodies in Unadorned, and the uncomfortable teenage pairs in Awkward, then lights them cinematically, posed often in exaggerated settings. The narrative structures within the Teenage Stories, with the images of giant girls, or the bodies suspended in mid-motion in In Between, are theatricalised, and knowingly incorporate a little humour to heighten the drama of adolescent years. These are the types of artistic tools Fullerton-Batten utilises to produce work that blends memory and imagination to create these enigmatic, dreamlike images.
She talks candidly about her upbringing as we sit at the dining table of her London home that she shares with her husband and two young sons. “A lot of it reflects back on my childhood, or the relationship I had with my mother or my sisters,” she says. “When you are doing your own personal work, you have to reflect from somewhere or something to inspire you.”
Fullerton-Batten puts much of her initial inspiration for producing work down to her father, who was a passionate amateur photographer. “I was brought up with him having his camera on him the whole time, we have thousands of photographs of us,” she recalls. “I would see these changes happening in the dark room, so I borrowed his camera and started taking photographs of myself. He says he remembers, when I was about 12 years old, walking round the streets of New York, and me following a bag flying in the wind and photographing it.”
Born in Germany in 1970, to an English father and German mother, she was the second of four siblings, living in Germany and America before moving to England, without their mother, after her parents divorced. “That was a big thing for all of us, because suddenly I was a sort of mother substitute. My father didn’t have much help from a female, and my mum was suddenly without children. So this was what happened for a while,” she says flicking through an untitled, self-published book of her work, and pointing to an image called Memories from the Mother and Daughter series. “This would be me, as a 17 year-old, and my mum looking back at our old family albums, and regretting things from the past.”
The multitude of characters in Fullerton-Batten’s work illustrate the fragmented, decentred nature of autobiographical work. She finds form for her memories in the subjects that she photographs, physically establishing them in a body, in a place and in a time. They are nearly always female, and their situations relatable.
The confusing, tense transition from teenage years to adulthood is explored in In Between, with the inclusion of a state of ‘minor-chaos’ as Fullerton-Batten describes it – spilt milk, scattered music sheets, a smashed fish bowl. These dynamic shots feature girls in various bizarre mid-air positions – jumping, floating, falling – frozen by a fast flash to prevent motion blur. “I wanted it to be quite surreal, like they were floating, like they were going through that change,” she says. “There is always something slightly, subtly, broken or falling, and that’s almost like this turmoil inside.”
They are an energetic departure from a previous series of often more self-conscious, vulnerable subjects. Teenage Stories for instance, shot in model towns, shows girls inhabiting imaginary worlds, oversized and awkwardly cumbersome. They are described by Fullerton-Batten as being depicted as having “more power than in their everyday lives”, emphasising the significance of daydreaming for young women.
Fullerton-Batten’s aesthetic – female subjects, often in unusual locations, under cinematic lighting, with a deep, atmospheric tonal palette – lends itself to the uncanny familiarity of many of the scenes. Mentioning the work of photographer Gregory Crewdson, a clear influence – “he’s so theatrical, he’s almost like a movie director” – she goes on to discuss the assumptions she has faced with regards to airbrushing, considering continual backlashes against work that might appear overly modified. “A lot of people think my work is heavily retouched, but I do very little in post. I often get my retouchers to take layers off again if somebody looks too pure,” she says. “I find that you can take a really mundane situation and just with really amazing light you can make it look more surreal, or more painterly.”
This sense of authenticity formed an important part of her Unadorned series, which was, in part, a reaction against representations of ultra-thin, overly enhanced images of women in the media, whether physically or digitally. It was also inspired by depictions of softly-lit, full-figured female bodies in Renaissance painting. “It was a really interesting project because a lot of them hadn’t taken their clothes off in front of a photographer before,” she says. “And once they got over that inhibition, they really opened up, talking about their bodies and how they felt about them. One woman had some issues with her weight, and she didn’t take her clothes off in front of her boyfriend. But this was her way to overcome it.”
Acting as both documentary and biography, the series moves away from her more autobiographic work, but retains the surreal, narrative-based composition. A girl lying between piles of old mattresses, a young man atop a table of rotting fruit, a redhead standing in an overgrown greenhouse; each Rubenesque nude subject posed confidently and appearing luminous, discordant with the decay that surrounds them.
Incidentally the redhead in the greenhouse is currently the best selling print in the series. So how does Fullerton-Batten negotiate and balance the worlds of commercial and fine art photography, in both of which she appears to have her feet firmly planted? “The gallery world doesn’t like that you are doing commercial stuff, but you have to make a living, and I do still really love the buzz of shooting advertising,” she says.
As a keen young artist, she studied a B.Tech in photography, and went on to freelance as a photography assistant, working for the likes of Mario Testino and Michael Harvey amongst others. She muses over how the industry has changed from a time when assistants would get their break by covering smaller shoots for the established photographers that they worked for, to today’s saturation of stock photography and what seems like fewer commissions than ever before.
“For an art director it’s a dream, they are like ‘eeny, meeny, miny, moe, who shall I choose?’ and they are nearly always available. It’s very rare for a photographer to be shooting all the time. Whereas 20 years ago, I remember some that I would be working for who would be working non-stop,” she says. “In a way some photographers are shooting themselves in the foot. Some have stopped shooting stock, but others, because they aren’t getting commissions, are only shooting stock, and then their work starts looking like stock, and then they don’t get the commission because it’s too ‘stocky’.”
However, she remarks that other aspects of the industry seem to lack a sense of progress. “One thing I am very aware of is that there are more female art photographers than there are female commercial photographers, where there are hardly any.” It might be too easy to fall back on this divide being down to a traditional preference of the ‘male-gaze’ of photography, the mass acceptance of the objectified female form in commercial work (whether ‘reclaimed’ by the female pictured or not), or discussions of the female-gaze as something less sexual and more sensual, and therefore supposedly more suited to art photography. But perhaps in part, these issues still remain sticking points in the industry.
Nevertheless, the gaze of Fullerton-Batten’s work observes and playfully explores a disorientation of fiction, reality, memory, and imagination whilst considering a wider social commentary, something that calls for intelligence from the viewer, as both visual consumer and cultural spectator. And yet, through her photography, as the past and present become a series of anecdotal scenes, each image can also be appreciated simply for its uncanny tone and its character of mystery.