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|BJPWild about HarryBy Dawn Sumner
Harry Borden decided to become a photographer because he thought it might be a bit of a laugh but has become one of the UK’s most talked-about portrait photographers. He talks to Dawn Sumner about life at the top of his game
Harry Borden sees his move in to portrait photography as a happy accident. Having spent his teenage years on a pig farm in Devon, Borden studied for an OND in Photography at Plymouth College of Art & Design before moving to London to assist advertising photographers Barney Edwards and John Swannell.
‘I only became a photographer because my friends were all doing the same thing, but I soon fell in love with it and realised I had a good eye. I started taking portraits seriously after a friend of mine Hywel Jones came back to college after doing a work placement with Trevor Leighton. I was amazed by the approach Hywel took after working with Leighton and I just started copying him. I then asked everyone I could to sit for me and my early work was probably most influenced by Nick Knight. Then I began to record the relationship with the sitter, rather than it being concerned purely with composition,’ recalls Borden.
While the celebrities that he photographs are used to bright lights and lots of attention, Borden tries to make his sittings as simple an affair as possible. ‘I don’t like doing big production numbers with lots of stylists, I much prefer going to someone’s house to do a shoot on my own. I really admire Jane Bown because her pictures have such a lightness of touch.
When she meets people they are bowled over by the fact that it isn’t a big production number. As a photographer the qualities that you bring to a portrait are multi-faceted. It is about observing people, composition and light: these are all the things that make a great photograph as well as creating a rapport with the individual,’ he explains.
Don’t say cheese
Creating the right environment for the shoot is instinctive to Borden. ‘Any space has a visual tension and it is just a question of being open to it,’ he suggests.
He waits for his sitter to arrive before deciding on which lighting to use and if he has enough time he will do several shots using a range of techniques. The distinctive ring flash technique used in much of Borden’s earlier photography has been dropped in his more recent work in favour of available light and portable flash. ‘I get a lot more time with people these days and I think ring flash is a bit of a cheap trick, which is okay to use if you don’t have much time, but the danger with using it is that it does draw attention to itself,’ he confesses.
Borden dislikes the term portrait, because he feels it links photographers too closely with traditional portrait painting. ‘What I do is photograph spaces I find interesting and put people in them and they then become little stages for people to be themselves and explore what happens. Rather than hammering away at one idea I will always try and keep things loose.
Picture editors are much happier that way because they hate to see 10 roles of film with the same scenario. I would have got bored with photography long ago if I had done what some other photographers do which is the same thing over and over again.’
Through the influence of fellow IPG photographers Tom Stoddard and David Modell, Borden has developed a love of environmental portraiture. Many of the celebrities that Borden has shot have been raised to iconic status because of the environments he has portrayed them in. One classic example is of Michael Hutchence, where he is leaning across a balcony staring straight in to camera. Since the rock star’s untimely death, Borden’s picture has been syndicated throughout the world and used in both print and television media.
Another much talked-about picture was a shot Borden took of the Duchess of York for Instyle magazine. Faced with numerous outfits to chose from and an army of stylists, one item of clothing caught Borden’s eye – a pink coat with a mink trim, designed by Christian Lacroix. ‘It made her look a little bit like a prostitute but at the same time I think she looked amazing, rather brave and stoic. I suggested we did the shoot outside against a wall that had red paint splattered across it and what looks like a cross etched into the wall that helped create an iconic grandeur. At the time I remember thinking that it was going to be one of my best pictures,’ he smiles.
Borden always starts off his shoots by showing his sitter a small folio of his recent work and this is usually enough to win them round to the ideas he has for the portrait. ‘I am surprised more people don’t do it because it buys you some time and they can see that you are not just another hack and it shows you are sincere. The folio almost always wins the person over but I do say to people that if there is anything that they don’t want to do then I won’t make them do it. I am quite instinctive with people and I work by my own personal ethos that no one is better than anyone else and I am as good a photographer as Demi Moore is an actress.’
Borden is always pretty confident that he knows something about the person he is going to meet. There are occasions, however, when not knowing who someone is can have its advantages. ‘A few years ago I had to photograph Quentin Tarantino and it was around about the time of the release of Reservoir Dogs. I hadn’t seen the film and all I knew was that he was really in to films. His publicist said I could only have five minutes so I took Quentin outside to do the shoot. We started talking about films and I think we ended up wandering about for over an hour. I think if I had already seen the film before I met him I probably would have been in awe of him and the shoot would not have gone so well. I would rather go into a shoot on a one-to-one basis – one human being to another, and not quote passages from their book, for example, because I would just look like a dick,’ he laughs.
While Borden always tries to keep an open mind about his sitters there was one moment of weakness when he felt the urge to use his skills as a photographer to portray someone in an unflattering way. ‘I was asked to photograph Ann Widdecombe for The Observer and she is one of those people I didn’t think I would like. I thought that I could portray her as an English eccentric, but I started to think: “Well, her views are quite objectionable. She speaks out about single parents, yet she has never had any children, and she talks about sex in a rather prudish way.” I thought, right, I am going to stitch her up and this is the only time I have ever done this. I put a light underneath her and made her look like a gargoyle, and when the picture came out I had friends ring me up saying how great it was. Then a few months later someone else asked me to shoot her for another magazine. I felt bad about what I had done because it goes against my ethos, so I got Tara, who looks after me at IPG, to ring her and make her aware that I was the same Harry Borden who had shot her for The Observer. I think she was visually illiterate because she had no idea that I had done anything underhand. It probably confirmed how she saw herself. I didn’t use any cheap tricks the second time and the pictures were far more interesting,’ reflects Borden.
Since quite early on in his career Borden has always tried to create a distinctive style to his work that makes his editorial photography stand out from the crowd. His much-published portraits of famous names have always been his calling card. ‘You should always try and develop a unique visual fingerprint that forms the basis on which you are commissioned. I will only do a job if the magazine will let me work the way I want to and print the pictures I want them to. I refuse to work to somebody else’s agenda.’
Now that Borden is represented by IPG he has had to be become more aware of marketing and has recently put together a new book to show clients, which he designed himself and output digitally. ‘They haven’t had a decent portfolio of mine to show for years, because when you work regularly for a pool of editorial clients you just keep working for them. I needed to put a new folio together because I am aware that every year there is a wave of new competitors coming through and you can’t afford to be complacent.’
Borden shoots 150 jobs a year and while he is most widely known for his photographs of celebrities he is happy to photograph anyone. Recent projects have included a series of photographs called The Contenders for Observer Sport Monthly, which depicts several young athletes who could become Britain’s new generation of sporting heroes. Borden is also fascinated with photographing faded celebrities who were icons of British television during the past 30 years. ‘I have photographed Bob Monkhouse twice and he is a really interesting character. At one point in a shoot when he was smiling and playing up to the camera I asked him to look up and not think of anything. As soon as he did that it became a really striking photograph. To approach a famous person and say to them “absence of thought” is interesting, because suddenly they are not giving you anything and it is a betrayal of the celebrity world they are locked into.’
The celebrity experience does not seem to have rubbed off on Borden, who confesses he would rather watch EastEnders than go to an opening night.
He has come a long way since his days printing his work in a makeshift darkroom in one of his dad’s pig sheds. ‘While no-one will remember the pictures that I shot for the Nursing Times or Accountancy Age 10 years ago, it gave me an incredible amount of experience to draw on. I always recommend to graduates to work for the trade magazines because they are a great opportunity to experiment with ideas and gain valuable experience,’ he enthuses.
Fame is not high on Borden’s agenda: he just wants to take great pictures and be respected by his peers. But there is no escaping the fact that he is fast becoming one of the top portrait photographers of the early 21st Century.
‘When I am feeling stressed I go back to using the Hasselblad because it is like an extension of my arm, but I also like using the Pentax 6×7 which is brilliant. I would hate the idea of a formulaic way of working. Photography is a journey and I think that you are constantly evolving your techniques. Shooting with the Pentax 6×7 handheld works really well and gives me a lot of freedom.’
By Reuel Golden
British/American portrait photographer Harry Borden is certainly direct. Consider these words “I tell my sitters that I want the definitive picture of them, and they say to me “what is that?” to which I give them my stock response; the picture that will on your biography when you die.”
A bit presumptuous? Perhaps, but also highly effective. Borden is now one of England’s most sought after celebrity photographers. He shoots regularly for a variety of magazines and Sunday newspaper supplements in both England and the States. He’s been honoured twice by the World Press Photo Awards; this year he earned second place in the Portrait Single category with his photo of Icelandic pop star Bjork. His pictures of designer Nicole Farhi and the Spice Girls are in the permanent collection of London’s National Portrait Gallery.
Not bad for a young man whose background didn’t set him on the path of predictable career goals. His mother a television chef. His father, Charlie Borden, was a successful art director for McCann Erickson, Young and Rubicam and other New York agencies. But when Harry was only two, his father a New York Jew, decided to move the family to rural England and become a pig farmer. Not a conventional childhood by any means, but then Harry Borden is not a conventional photographer.
Most portraitists have one technique that is immediately identifiable; for instance the resonant tones, the stark black and white composition that could only be Herb Ritts. With Borden, however, there is no obvious signature. That, according to Terence Pepper, head of photographs at London’s National Portrait Gallery, is Borden’s strength. ” He is highly innovative and takes each picture in a different way, according to the assignment,” says Pepper. “He has deep knowledge of art and photographic history, and is prepared to draw from it. But at the same time he shoots off the cuff if need be, so there is no such thing as ‘a Borden picture.’”
Fourteen years before his work was acquired by the NPG, Borden visited the gallery while still a student. He told Pepper he hoped his work would someday be seen in such an environment. Even then Borden was aiming high.
So do many students, of course, but few get there. How does Borden explain his success? Did having an art director father, albeit a retired one, help? “Actually, if anything it was more of a hindrance because he was my worst critic,” Borden says. “But I did learn at an early age that people want to know what you feel about the world and how you see it, so my portfolio was very focused.” Success came early, he says. “My second job ever was shooting Tom Petty at the Dorchester in London for the New Musical Express. Within six months I was off to San Francisco and working with Jellyfish, while still in my early twenties.” From the New Musical Express, he went on to music monthlies Q and Select. These days his photos appear in magazines like GQ and Fortune.
The best portraits are ones that reveal something about the soul of the subject. It can be a slight smirk, a tilt of the head, something about the hands, a gesture that offers a clue about who that person before us is. When the subject is a celebrity, the portrait photographer’s challenge is to offer fresh insights to our jaded eyes. The photographer records for us the relationship that was formed with the sitter, no matter how fleeting and how insincere it may have been , and by doing so tells us essential truths about that person.
Borden will use a variety of methods to reveal the truth about a subject. As he puts it: “As a photographer it is very easy to gloss over someone’s humanity with what can seem like a great technique, but then you look back and the picture tells you more about the photographer than the person.”
His favorite photographers have always been women, he says, citing Diane Arbus and Mary Ellen Mark as particular inspirations. “Their motivation for photographing people is purer. They’re more receptive to their sitters and don’t dominate them. There is empathy and elegance in their pictures.”
Noble sentiments, but the medium can never be totally democratic. The photographer must display some degree of power over the sitter for the picture to work. It will always be a dictatorship, no matter how benevolent and affable the photographer may be. When it comes to revealing an “essential truth,” isn’t it always the photographer’s interpretation of the truth during that particular session? “That’s a good point,” Borden concedes. “Of course, I feel that I’m the best judge of what works and what is the most revealing picture, but at the same time I’m a pragmatist; I know what I like will not necessarily work in a magazine. I will not fall on a sword for any photograph as long as I’m producing iconic pictures of these people, and by the same token I am happy for the sitters to have an input. It’s a strange relationship: they know and I know they are standing there so I can make them look good, which will make me look good. So we are all depending on each other; it’s quite intense.”
“Intense” is an adjective that could be applied to Borden’s picture of Dennis Quaid for the English Sunday newspaper The Observer. Like a lot of Borden’s work the portrait appeared in the paper’s “Life” supplement to illustrate the celebrity interview of the week. Quaid is best known for his role in The Big Easy, a perfect vehicle for his repertoire of lascivious smirks. Borden wanted to move away from that image and reveal something more about the actor who has never followed up on that early success. As a result, we are presented with a portrait of brooding intensity &endash; no cheeky grin this time, but a full on glare that says, ” Don’t mess with me.”
” It was one of those situations where you are sandwiched between photographers, and you only have 15 minutes or so to get the picture,” Borden recalls. ” I set up a studio, but then noticed the natural light from a far away window. When I met him, I was immediately taken in by this charismatic man with a strong presence, but one who had quite a dark side to him, so the light was ideal. I got him to really stare at my assistant, and she started bursting into spontaneous giggles. He’s got that ability to really unnerve you, but he just knew right away what I was after.”
Compare that image with his jocular, relaxed portrait of actor John Lithgow, and Borden’s versatility is clear. “I walked in and was immediately struck by the wallpaper in the hotel,” Borden recalls, “and I knew it would blend in perfectly with the clothes he was wearing.”
The effect was achieved in part by using ring flash, but Borden says that he relies increasingly on natural daylight with reflectors. “It is very tempting to use ring flash all the time. You just find an interesting background then shoot. The problem is that after a while all the pictures start to look the same and it all gets a bit soulless.” He also says that he is not a great fan of conventional flash: ” I think it was Eve Arnold who said it kills the atmosphere &endash; and I know exactly what she meant.”
To give Lithgow and the background their distinctive hue, Borden turned to cross processing, but done very subtly. Borden’s printer is Chris Cooke of Metro Imaging, who also works with Rankin, Nick Waplington and David Bailey. Cooke confirms that Borden uses the technique sparingly. “Cross processing is done to exaggerate the colours and no more than that,” Cooke says of Borden. “He wants to keep the pictures as simple as possible, so the viewer is left to concentrate on the person.”
The acid test for celebrity portraiture is whether the picture would be as powerful if the person depicted was just an ordinary joe. In this instance there is so much to engage the viewer &endash; the colour, Lithgow’s’ facial expression and particularly that wallpaper &endash; that Lithgow’s public persona is an afterthought. Here he seems happy to play the role of everyone’s slightly eccentric uncle.
As in many of Borden’s images, the composition is simple, but with a twist. The portrait goes against one of the golden rules of portraiture: “Don’t leave out the hands.” He was similarly inspired while photographing Jarvis Cocker, lead singer of Pulp. His award winning image shows him in a jacket with a hood zipped up so far that he is barely identifiable. A new genre of faceless portraiture is born.
“I’ve seen him in action &endash; he works fast,” says Cooke. “He’ll scan the room, maybe turn a table around or something, and then just start shooting. It’s an education.”
Borden concurs that he thinks on his feet, but says that it is usually a matter of necessity when dealing with busy celebrities and their entourage. He speaks with affection of a shoot he has just done for Newsweek with a man who was a fireman during the World War 2 Blitz of London. “He was just an ordinary guy, and we had the whole morning together with no publicists around.”
Most photographers say their prime motivation is not the money or the glory, but their love of the medium and their constant need to better themselves. Borden is no different, but with him you actually believe it. He says that while he does not shun commercial work, he accepts it only “If they want me because they like what I do, rather than as a photographer who can mechanically reproduce their own vision.” He is articulate and engaging, and gives the impression that he would be successful in whatever career he pursued. Even pig farming, though there his people skills might be wasted.
So is he not interested at all in money? “Look, if I wanted to be rich I would have become a property developer,” he says. “I love taking pictures of people. When I’m not working I will go to the park and take pictures of my daughter.”
Yet beneath the friendly exterior there lurks a steely ambition. In the short term Borden wants to raise his profile in the States (where he his represented by matrix) and shoot for magazines such as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and Interview. And in the long term? “My pictures are pieces of a jigsaw that will form a book in a few years, at a later date,” says Borden. “It’s my stab at immortality.”
Royal Photographic Society
By Simon James
Anyone who pays even a passing attention to portrait photography will know the name Harry Borden. Be it from: a disturbing Sunday Times Magazine cover of the infamous Lorena Bobbitt, a surreal Richard Branson in the guise of a post-modern angel, his Fuji award winning portrait of Jarvis Cocker, or his prints of the Spice Girls on permanent display at the National Portrait Gallery, over the past few years Harry Borden seems to have photographed them all.
Borden, still only thirty-three, was born in New York, son of a hot shot advertising art director who moved to London in the early seventies. “When I was about eight however my Dad decided to get out of advertising and bought a farm two hundred miles from the bright lights of Soho near Tiverton in Devon. This was where I grew up and I thank God I did. The farm was a pig farm and I had a wonderfully earthy, healthy upbringing: I used to help muck out the pigs before school in the morning and do the same on my return home in the afternoon.” First contact with photography came at the age of twelve: “Mark Weekes, a friend at Tiverton Comprehensive, had a camera and it seemed like a wonderfully sensual toy really; he seemed to take fantastic pictures with it. Soon after this I bought a second-hand Minolta SRT100X which got me started. I photographed everything for the love of it, and when I look back I think I can honestly say that pretty well from the start I knew I was going to make my career in photography. I did “A” Levels in Biology, English and Chemistry but when the choice between university and art school came up there didn‚t really seem much of a decision to make: I just thought it‚s art school and photography for me and headed off to Plymouth College of Art and Design. At that time at Plymouth you couldn‚t do an HND without first doing an Ordinary National Diploma or Foundation so I enrolled on the OND in photography. I must have been a fairly typical student; skived a lot in the first year, got to be a passable snooker player, and then in the second year I just started methodically taking photographs of everything around me.”
“Ironically the defining moment of my time at college came about as a result of somebody else‚s work experience placement. Hywel Jones, now also a successful photographer, had been off to London for a couple of weeks to work in Trevor Leighton‚s studio. He came back with stories of another world, saying that it was the sort of life of Richard Avedon or David Bailey, working every day in the studio and making fabulous portraits with studio flash. I was knocked over by the glamour of this life style, had found my specialism, and deciding almost straight away that this was what I wanted to do, began working to learn everything I could about studio portraiture. Over that year I got totally into the white background style: I made portraits of every lecturer, the caretaker, the canteen dinner ladies and anyone and everyone else who was prepared to stand in front of the camera.”
“After finishing my OND I couldn‚t really see any point in moving on to a degree course. I‚m sure there is a value to these courses for some people but I didn‚t want to be an academic: I wanted to make a career as a photographer and so applied for a studio assistant‚s job with Exeter based photographer Garth Blore. Working for Garth, who‚s now moved his studio to Teignmouth, was inspirational and a great preparation for the future. In the way of provincially based professionals, we turned our hands to whatever work came in: everything from really complicated advertising still lives of tiny electronic components to topless girls for garage calendars. The next step on my journey came about through my father who remained friends with several people he had known from his advertising days. While I was working for Garth the great advertising photographer Lester Bookbinder came to stay on the farm. He liked my folio, said he thought I had a good eye and pointed out a fact that I‚d already known in my heart: that to stand a chance of really making it in photography I would have to move to London. The big decision was made easier by the fact that my mate Hywel and Andrew Wood, another friend from Plymouth College were already there, and had a tiny flat in Bayswater where I could stay while I was knocking on doors looking for assisting work and finding my feet.”
“Lester Bookbinder had given me some suggestions of places to try, and gradually I began to get work with people like David Montgomery, Barney Edwards, and John Swannell. These people are of course big names and it isn’t easy to get to assist in their studios, but I‚d emphasise to anyone wanting to really make it there‚s no point in assisting people who aren’t any good: you have to assist the best people or you learn nothing. In honesty I learnt loads but I wasn‚t very good at assisting: I wasn‚t competent and methodical enough and I didn‚t do it for very long. Next I went on the Enterprise Allowance scheme and thought the best way to start surviving as a photographer would be to try and get work from the trade magazines. A couple of my first regular clients were Campaign and Marketing but the real break came when I started to get work from New Musical Express. NME had a reputation for encouraging talented writers and photographers: I liked Anton Corbin, and Steve Pyke‚s work and when I went to see the art director he was very encouraging. These days, no matter how talented they are, before they‚re given a portrait session new photographers have to shoot live stuff but I was very lucky: suddenly I was photographing really big names like Tom Petty, Quentin Tarantino and Tim Roth. Aspirant portraitists may be interested to know however that this wasn‚t an immediate route to fiscal security: the rates at that time depended upon the size of the image that finally appeared in the magazine plus a blanket twenty-five pounds on top to cover expenses. For a cover portrait the rate was £500, which then was a lot of money to me, but if they the image was used small on an inside page you could find yourself going all the way to San Francisco and only realising £75 pounds on the trip. On the other hand of course it was a great way of building up my folio and fantastic fun. I also worked for a jazz magazine and it was the same deal with them, but that was fine because editorial work at the end of the day is principally a show case.”
“Gradually I began to build up my editorial client base; I was also working for NME‚s rival magazine, Select, although under a pseudonym so as not to lose the original client. In this case I realised I‚d been rumbled when someone with a sense of humour on NME credited one of my pictures with the pseudonym I was using in Select. Not wanting to become typecast as a music photographer it seemed time to move on, so I had to think about where to try next. Again conscious of the fact that editorial work is a showcase, I realised that the Independent on Sunday Review and The Observer Magazine are read by exactly the sort of people that I want to be aware of my work, so approached these titles with my folio, and then every month that my work came out in Select I sent them a tear sheet. This seemed less aggressive than phoning every five minutes but kept them aware of my current work. I think the top titles also always want to see that their photographers make pictures for the love of it, so I also submitted occasional pieces of work other than portraiture to try and show my feeling for the medium as a whole. In the end the gentle persistence paid off and the phone rang.”
Most recently Borden has become a part of the prestigious IndependentPhotographer‚s Group. “Originally I was approached by Katz Pictures whowere interested in syndicating my images. The big break came when Geof Katz had asked Nigel Parry to do a portrait of Richard Branson for American GQ. He couldn‚t do it, Geof needed somebody else, and I got the job. I knew this was a very major opportunity, so took the ball in both hands and ran with it. I decided that instead of just doing one portrait I was going to try to blow them completely out of the water and I ended up doing about nine different scenarios over half a day. I talked it over with the art director, spent the whole morning setting up and the whole afternoon shooting and got so much material that they extended the size of the article and ran five portraits over five pages. The portrait of Branson with the wings ran over a page and a half and it went on to win third prize in the annual World Press Photo Awards. This in turn sparked the interest of IPG and they asked me if I would be interested in joining. I was very honoured to be offered a place in the same stable as Alistair Thain and David Modell and jumped at thechance.”
On the technical side Borden is known for a few tricks he‚s evolved over his time as a portraitist, not least of which has been his cross processing of tungsten balanced transparency film. He also recently made a substantial investment in Apple Macintosh computer equipment, which he outputs to great effect through a Fuji Pictrostat printer. The Hasselblad has long been his camera of choice for formal portraiture and for the past few years he has made much use of a Bowens ring flash attached to a large power pack, but he happily admits that he also carries a Leica M6 almost everywhere he goes. Looking critically at his photography, a clarity of vision shines out. Although quietly spoken and modest about his success he is clearly driven by his passion for the medium, highly ambitious and consciously in control of the manner and direction in which his personal body of work continues to build. In his current practice he is making another considered, stylistic step forward as can be evidenced in his recent portrait of the artist Damien Hirst and his son Connor. Influenced by photographers from the documentary arena and keen to produce “real” portraits rather than quickly shot, tightly cropped images of famous people, he is working much more in available light and deliberately pulling back to include the subject‚s immediate surroundings. Although by no means the only portraitist to embrace the ring flash in the nineties, he‚s well aware we approach the end of the decade. With a characteristic confidence, and firmness of step, Harry Borden has determined to move on.