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Polly Brown: “I work best when I’m bored”

Words Bella Webb

Photographer Polly Brown explores the damaging role of airport security in her upcoming exhibition, Airportals

A couple of decades ago, airports were relatively innocuous places. Architecturally anonymous spaces with transient populations, people moved through them with little thought to the place itself, but dreams of their next destination. After 9/11, everything changed. Airports became intentionally hostile, increasingly associated with security checks and systematic racism. Filmmaker Richard Curtis scrambled to reclaim some form of nostalgia for airports, dedicating the opening sequence of Love, Actually to a romanticised notion of hellos and goodbyes in crowded terminals. But photographer Polly Brown has no such illusions. Her upcoming exhibition, Airportals, which opens at WE FOLK PRESENTS in Amsterdam on Thursday, explores the sinister side of airport security. Here, Polly explains why airports are such poignant places, how making mistakes is the key to growing as a photographer, and what inanimate objects can bring to fashion photography.

Your new exhibition, Airportals, revolves around airport security checks. Why is this topic so ripe for exploration?

When I was growing up, airports were these non-spaces, designed to be forgotten. They’ve got this nostalgia to them, this idea of adventure and notions of freedom of movement. But that’s totally changed in the last couple of decades and airports now stand for something totally different. When President Trump changed the law on immigration in 2017, people protested at JFK. In September, people held a protest at Hong Kong International Airport. You’ve also got the impending environmental damage that comes with airports and air travel as a motif, which has really come to the forefront in the same time period. And of course, the invasiveness of facial recognition and body scanners. So these points of entry have morphed from a seamless process to a real point of friction. I use film which has been damaged by airport x-ray machines, which gives the images quite a nostalgic look. It draws out this contrast between the glamorisation of air travel and how damaging that glamorisation can be.

Airports are often overlooked, but they reflect so many of the hypocrisies and tensions in our society. In that sense, this project is an extension of your other work, which magnifies everyday situations people tend to ignore. 

I also inadvertently look at the politics involved in architecture a lot, like with the office plant series and the book about gallery spaces. Those hidden rules. In airports, you’ve got secret corridors that people are taken down if your passport isn’t right or you have the wrong stamp. There are a lot of layers to how we function in those spaces that are designed to be invisible. I enjoy finding an element of that that can illustrate it, be it a plant or in this case the x-ray machine, to try and peel it back a bit.

Do you have any personal experience of the sinister side of airports?

I do, but only from making this project. I’m in a privileged position of being white and having a British passport, so there are a lot of biases that land me in the right queue. I started this project when I was doing a travel job, so it was very important that some of that film didn’t get damaged. So, I was quite often the person holding up the security queue, insisting on hand checks and arguing in various languages about whether they were going to pass my film through the machines. As soon as you start to cause any kind of suspicion, the atmosphere changes instantly. 

One time, I was in Argentina and I got taken into a side room. I thought I was going to be body-searched and actually they led me to a room with an ancient body scanner which was almost visibly radiating and they made me stand in the middle of it like some kind of Frankenstein’s monster. They left the room, like doctors would in a hospital to avoid radiation. And then I spotted that they left my films – which I’d been trying so hard to protect – in the corner of the room. It was a horrible flight home, because I thought it would have screwed up all my images. It happened to be fine on that occasion, and that was the only instance of me being ferried off and going through that protocol. You don’t get anything explained to you.

People are really willing to help and teach if you’re willing to admit that you need to learn.”

Taking photographs in those areas of high security is forbidden, so how did you discover that the X-ray machines would leave a mark on undeveloped film?

Like many photographers, I discovered it by accident. I left some boxes of film in my checked luggage. I’ve geeked out really hard on this now, so I know they have much stronger x-ray machines for checked luggage than for hand luggage. The images were no longer usable, but I thought it was fascinating that you could see points along the journey where I had taken some boxes out and shot them, leaving others in. You might get one round of damage, which would be a wave, but the more x-ray machines you pass through, the more it builds up. You might get multiple waves or fogging, which gets more extreme as time goes on. I loved that I could see the places I’d been through the pictures and there was this double exposure. It makes you question the whole nature of the photograph. You’re supposed to be capturing one moment in time with light on the celluloid and this was capturing multiple moments, documenting my entire journey. That was the initial spark when I realised I wanted to incorporate the x-rays and this idea of process and travel in a greater project.

This exhibition was three years in the making. How has the concept evolved over that time?

Initially, it was about reportage photos I had taken in airports. Everywhere I’ve gone for three years, I’ve carried film in my case and my hand luggage to see what I get back. In the show, there is a mixture of images shot onto the damaged film and then just the x-ray waves on unused film. They’re kind of these snakes of grain and colour. That was a big turning point in the project, when I started to think about those abstracts as photographs in their own right. It also took a while because not every x-ray machine damages your film. I’ve come to love the abstract images on unused film, because I’m constantly setting up little still lives, so there’s something amazingly freeing in the picture being removed from your authority. I didn’t press a button to take that picture. It was created outside of my control.

Did you end up with favourite airport x-ray machines? 

I only noticed this when I was putting the show together, but there were a lot of Japanese locations. You never really know, but you can judge the age of a machine, and you learn certain tricks about where to put the film in your baggage, and also the ISO of the film can make a difference. They’re older, and I went through a lot of regional airports, which helped. Big, international airports had more high-tech machinery. I also love the ones from Gander, Newfoundland, which is basically a shed with one gate and a machine which looks about fifty years old. I got chatting to an airport official there who gave me a tour of this unused section of the airport that hadn’t changed since the 1960’s. The only time it has been used since then is on 9/11, when flights bound for New York were diverted there.

Gander, Newfoundland

“With photography, it’s incredibly daunting because there’s a lot of technical knowledge to know and you’ll never know everything. That nervousness of turning up on a set and worrying that you won’t know how to do something never goes away, but the best cure I’ve found for that is to be as honest as possible.”

More broadly, your work focuses on still life. You make mundane details and inanimate objects feel expansive and almost existential. What drew you to that style of photography and why do you think it’s so effective?

Initially, it was just an absence of models. I had no-one to take photographs of and I was hanging around on my own, making do with what was around. That’s like the joke answer, but the reality is that I work best when I’m bored. I’m mooching about on my own, looking at stuff and making up little narratives for the things around me, and I end up with a still life. I think if I have that space to be bored, I can see spaces or architectural things in a different way than if I was reacting to a person who was there. 

How do you think your photography has evolved since you’ve been working professionally?

I don’t know how much the style has evolved to be honest. I was at my parents’ house the other day and they had these paintings up that I did at A Level and they were all paintings of lonely objects with titles stolen from song lyrics. I had this moment of realisation that your interests don’t change that much. Even then, I was looking at how you could project human emotions onto inanimate things. There was a picture of a lamp with a Bob Dylan lyric as the title: ‘They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn.’ That said, I feel like I’m always trying to change. With photography, it’s incredibly daunting because there’s a lot of technical knowledge to know and you’ll never know everything. That nervousness of turning up on a set and worrying that you won’t know how to do something never goes away, but the best cure I’ve found for that is to be as honest as possible. The worst is when you pretend you know something and then you panic and have to Google it in the corner. People are really willing to help and teach if you’re willing to admit that you need to learn.

You Do Voodoo (2018): a tongue-in-cheek exploration of self-taught photography

“I love sitting with a designer while they flick through their sketchbook and explain how these random pictures of reservoirs relate to a skirt they made. Maybe that’s what the fashion industry sees within my work – it hints to these other elements that can be drawn out of the clothes.”

Let’s talk about commercial work, because it’s something you do really well – allowing for corporate considerations without compromising on creativity. How do you maintain that balance?

I’ve been really lucky to collaborate with people who have given me a lot of freedom. I know that’s not always the case. The people approaching me generally really understand the work – they’re art directors or they’re in-house at a brand and they understand the humour and the comment. When people get it, it’s really easy to collaborate. I work so much on my own, so it’s nice to have other people to bounce ideas off.

You’ve produced work for Miu Miu, Tiffany & Co and Gucci, to name a few. But outside of those projects, fashion rarely appears in your photography. What role does fashion play in your work?

Even if I show an element of a human, so often that element is just an arm, which might have a glimpse of a white t-shirt. But I don’t generally include clothes, no. I always want human elements to be as ungendered and nondescript as possible. It’s just a symbol of something alive. So I guess it’s strange that I get commissioned by fashion brands, although I have a longstanding relationship with the fashion industry. I studied Fine Art at CSM, but I was friends with people studying fashion and that gave me a really good appreciation of the layers behind fashion design. I love working with designers who allow me to explore that. For example, I worked with Roksanda [Ilincic] for years and she’s got so many aesthetic influences that inform the collections, which go from materials to architecture and beyond. I love sitting with a designer while they flick through their sketchbook and explain how these random pictures of reservoirs relate to a skirt they made. Maybe that’s what the fashion industry sees within my work – it hints to these other elements that can be drawn out of the clothes.

Polly Brown x Roksanda Ilincic

All images courtesy of Polly Brown