Australian-born, Los Angeles-based photographer Polly Borland is not an artist that many Australians would be familiar with even though she is responsible for world renowned portraits of a list of famous people from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to Cate Blanchett to Germaine Greer. Her anonymity may be short lived, however, thanks to the documentary “Polymorphous,” an intimate video portrait of Polly’s life and career that will debut on ABC TV on Tuesday 19 February.
Documenting the life of such a talented and eccentric character in a way that is revealing yet respectful is no easy task, but Producer Meghan Carlsen and Director Alex Chomicz have managed to maintain a fine balance of wit and wisdom. Through interviews with members of Polly’s family, recounts from art-world friends, and insights from past artistic subjects and collaborators such as Nick Cave and Cate Blanchett, “Polymorphous” explores the personal and professional journey of a fascinating and exciting artist like no other arts documentary.
For much of her career Polly was the sole inhabitant of her own quasi-amorphous world where her identity as a person was as indescribable as her identity as an artist. Her big break came as a fashion and portrait photographer, but she found photographing people in the context of a commissioned portrait too limiting and too functional. Driven by a greater need to express herself artistically and explore her own aesthetic interests, Polly eschewed the world of fashion photography and portraiture to focus on her own preoccupations.
Once she was free to explore her own desires and passions, Polly’s work took on a noticeably autobiographical characteristic and to some extent a biographical one also in that she often explores the psychology of people around her. Polly reveals, however, that she is “more interested in the psychology of what I’m going through.” For the last 10 years Polly has devoted herself to her art practice – a move that has seen her identify as an photographer gradually transform from commercial to artistic.
It is only in recent times that Polly has begun to receive the level of recognition in Australia that she deserves. Polly suggests that the reason she was not recognised by cultural institutions in Australia was because she had lived overseas for so long and was not regularly exhibiting in Australia, but it could also be a result of her lack of art school training. It might have taken longer than it should have, but she is finally being given the attention that she deserves. Yes, her work exists outside the “learnt” art conventions, and yes, her work does not reflect the usual influences of a classical art school education, but Polly says that she “wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Polly credits her new found fame with her regular exhibitions at Melbourne commercial gallery Murray White Room. Since making the transition to full-time artist, Polly has seen her work exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria, purchased by the National Portrait Gallery, and featured in the current exhibition “We used to talk about love” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. She will also have her work exhibited in New York in March.
Her most recent work explores quite personal concepts relating to time, psychology, and inner imaginings. “It is about trying to figure out how to deal with the fairly complex world around you and spatially where one fits within the fragmented world in which we live,” Polly explains. Polly also reveals that she has been influenced by her age and the preoccupations of people of her age. “My work is age specific,” Polly says, “but also deals with universal themes of alienation, acceptance, birth, life, and death.”
An avid fashion aficionado who prides herself on her appearance, Polly’s only criticism of the documentary was that she didn’t have someone on hand at all times to take care of her hair, make-up, and outfits. “In several scenes I look at myself and think oh my god, how could I have ever put that on,” Polly says. When asked whether she learnt anything about herself from the documentary, Polly referred to a scene where one of her sisters says that she doesn’t feel like Polly was ever part of the family and that she was different to the other members of her family. “I found that quite interesting,” Polly says. She also says that the film reveals “that I have good relationships with people – something that I pride myself on.”
Polly Boland is an incredibly talented artist and an extremely fascinating person who deserves to be on the other end of the camera for once in her life. Whether you consider her work innocent or creepy, seductive or sinister, one thing is for sure: Polly’s story needs to be told.
“Polly Borland – Polymorphous” airs 10pm February 19 on ABC1.