How to photograph yourself naked

Using a self-timer and her own strength, Polly Penrose’s images detail a beautiful relationship between her nude body and London’s abandoned spaces

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Polly Penrose
Photography Polly Penrose

Looking at Polly Penrose’s photographs, you’d never think there was a shred of self-doubt. Logging onto real estate websites to scout out the most interesting, abandoned locations, and using her nude body as a self-described prop, her work is strong yet serene as she drapes over and between lounge chairs, under a staircase or nestled “like a turkey” between two walls.

When she began taking photos ten years ago her own self-doubt almost got the better of her. “I always wanted to take photographs but I never did. I did everything before I did photography,” she says. “I just thought I need to know how to use a camera first of all, so I started photographing myself – wherever I could find, I would shoot.” Realising she had a penchant for a nude selfie, she swapped her PA job for Ewan McGregor with a studio management position at Tim Walker’s, before going it alone to balance motherhood and her ever-growing portfolio of work.

Ahead of her solo show, 10 Seconds, at London's Hoxton Gallery from 6 – 8 May, we spoke to Penrose about her work, how it began and where it is now, and asked her to give us a guide on how to shoot yourself in the nude.

UTILISE YOUR SURROUNDINGS

“My dad was a property developer in Dorset and he would develop barns in incredible spaces, so I started doing these self-portraits in these spaces and interacting (with them).

He was so horrified, bless him. I was like ‘can I have the keys and go there and take some pictures?’ It is quite weird... At the moment, the only way of me getting interesting locations is through estate agents, so I’m cold calling estate agents going ‘hi, I’m a photographer. I was just wondering if I could use this house? It’s really beautiful, I shoot in old houses’, and they are like ‘what kind of photography do you do’... and honestly I have to tell them because they might see my website and there’s this moment of ‘oh, right’. People are so horrified and it is so weird; I mean I turn up, take all my clothes off, start prancing around, hanging off fireplaces – but it’s such a ritual and, for me, I really need it. I’ve always needed to take pictures. I never have any time to my myself other than when I’m asleep (due to her two children), so with this I can breathe and go into this trance and it’s so calming.”

FIND A MENTOR

“Obviously, I can’t begin to talk about my pictures with Tim’s (Walker) – they are polar opposites because his are so orchestrated and extreme and theatrical and mine are so stripped back. None of it is really about pictures, it’s more a state of mind on how you approach pictures, but what I took from Tim is I remember saying to him, ‘there’s no time and you know we are house hunting and I’m pregnant and there’s nowhere to shoot and I was really frustrated because I hadn’t taken a photo in ages etc’, and he was like ‘stop making excuses just find somewhere. Be proactive and just get on with it’. That’s what he does! He’s like, ‘I want a herd of reindeer in a cupboard’, and he’ll just make it happen. He’s amazing and I think that is really important because there are so many procrastinators, and I can procrastinate forever and put walls up around it and say I can’t do this and that isn’t perfect and it takes so much energy and I’m tired…. But it’s like 'shut up – if you want to do it, do it', and I think that is the most important thing I took from him. And also just to shoot what you want to shoot. Tim has never been bound by what fashion photography ‘should be’ and he just does what he does and puts it out there and he never thinks ‘oh is anyone going to like this?’ It’s about whether he likes ‘this’.”

“We are so embroiled in highly sexualised pictures! We are blind to it now so that almost now a pure picture like mine is somehow quite shocking because it’s really honest” – Polly Penrose

GO IT ALONE

“Obviously, a lot of nudes of women are taken by men and that’s a whole other thing, but even (when it’s) by a female photographer it’s a conversation between two people it’s someone taking a photo of someone else. And you react to people, whereas I have no one to react to. I react to the space and I kind of forget that the camera is there, and I love, love houses and spaces and there’s something quite emotional about quite a lot of these places (because they) are going to be knocked down and they're on their last legs (when I'm there shooting).”

GET TO KNOW YOUR LOCAL REAL ESTATE AGENT

“You’re going into this space that’s been a family home, or maybe horrendous things have happened in it, but – that picture where I’m under the stairs in that yoga-esque pose – I looked at that place and thought ‘that is under the staircase where people have walked past that space hundreds of thousands of times to go up the stairs but no one’s ever like pressed themselves into it’. I had this urge just to give it this human interaction, and that was when I started thinking about what I was doing. I guess that’s evolved more – it’s kind of turned more into that. And suddenly, I started thinking of what I’m doing as a project, it’s not about practicing and getting good with a camera, this is what it is and that is when I started taking it seriously.”

FORGET ABOUT BEING TECHNICAL

“I don’t use lights unless it’s pitch black, (I’m) thinking about where the lights coming from and doing what I can but I’m so tinpot; I have used lighting rigs and they have never looked good – well the picture under the stairs is lit because it was just pitch black – but I think that’s another reason that my pictures look like my pictures. I’m working with the space, I’m working with me and working with the light that is there; everything is ambient and available, nothing’s set up, not even the lighting, unless I have to.”

NUDE DOESN’T MEAN SEXUAL

“My body is a prop. I go into these spaces and I use it to get the best picture that I can in that space, the most interesting, dynamic… The one thing that I did think was when I was taking them was that I’m strong. I’m quite good at gymnastics, I’m quite bendy. I think that seeing a body do those things is interesting and I wanted to show a women’s body. They are not sexual and I didn’t want any (thing) sexual. I’m not against it, I love beautiful alluring pictures of women, it was more documenting a performance of a body within a space and what it can (do in that space), and I wanted it to be strong, dynamic, capable, interesting. I didn’t want to lie around in on a chaise lounge. My body is not spectacular; it’s not fat, it’s not thin, it’s just quite a normal body. So you don’t look at my body and go ‘oh my god, look at that body’ you go ‘look at that body in the space’.”

“My body is not spectacular; it’s not fat, it’s not thin, it’s just quite a normal body. So you don’t look at my body and go ‘oh my god, look at that body’ you go ‘look at that body in the space’” – Polly Penrose

YOUR EMOTIONS WILL SHOW

“You can tell what I was going through, like there are one’s with the fabric over me, where Billy’s (my husband’s) mum was dying of cancer and they almost look like body tissue, I’m hidden and then the ones around when I got engaged and was getting married are really vibrant and really colourful and super, super dynamic and exuberant. But I don’t know how much of it is you reading into it, or me reading into it and trying to find some artistry where there isn’t really any.”

TEST THE WATERS OF CENSORSHIP

“I’ve had loads of pictures taken down which is why I put bars across nipples and bushes but it just pisses me off because it ruins the picture. You could look at an M&S advert for lingerie and it’s more sexual than the pictures that I put up when you can see my nipple – we are so embroiled in highly sexualised pictures! We are blind to it now so that almost now a pure picture like mine is somehow quite shocking because it’s really honest. Which is so weird because they aren’t shocking, but the fact that I can be at ease with my body people find quite (shocking). I mean, I’ve got scars from when I got a breast reduction, saggy deflated balloon tummy now from two children, but I love it. I don’t love it in the fact that I want to parade around and go out to a nightclub in a crop top but in that situation, in the pictures, weirdly the whole watching my body change-thing now is becoming really interesting.

I’m just trying to get across the human body in its simplest form and that it is a beautiful tool and in my pictures, it’s not that my pictures are necessarily about my body but they are more about the body and what it is interacting with.”

KNOW THAT IT MIGHT HURT, A BIT

“I’m not brave enough to show my face. It just started that the positions I find myself in are not as powerful when you see my face. I think that when you see a face, you look at a face and when you see a body without a face, the body language is much more powerful because you are not reading from the eyes. Also, you don't want to see my face in some of them because I’m straining like a wild beast and it’s not pretty (laughs).

Because I shoot on a self-timer that conversation is quite brutal. Some of them when I don’t get into the pose in time, my face is in it there it totally becomes less powerful, they are hilarious. So you have this beautiful serene image (but) how you get there couldn’t be any less beautiful: it’s ugly, it’s flappy, and it’s quite sweary… clambering up machines and cutting myself and bruising – it is so brutal. I have to do it like 50 or 60 times to get it right. Sometimes it’s a wild card and that will be the one in the edit that looks amazing but sometimes it’s just unbelievably obvious and I know now what I’m doing. It’s the environment that spells out the poses.

I’ll go back and I’ll look at the camera; that toe doesn’t look right, that needs to be bent, that elbow needs to be there and by the time I’ve done it 50 times. My body is remembering it and that’s why it’s not about my face. It really is about the body and about the shape. It’s become a thing now though and I think it’d be weird if I did show my face but I’m now sounding like Michael Jackson…”

LASTLY, PUT YOURSELF OUT THERE, FOR YOURSELF

“I entered a competition called the London Photographic Association and it was a nude one. I just though; why not, it’d be quite an interesting thing to do and I won it and I was like ‘I’m on to something’. It’s awful that you need other people’s approval, but the fact that is just how humans and life is, the fact that someone else had gone; ‘oh these are good’, so I was taking it more seriously. Which has always been a problem for me, I always put myself down. I’ve got a lot of friends who are photographers – really, really good ones – and they have got lights and incredible technicians and craftsman and women of what they do. I spent years kind of going ‘I’m not a photographer. I don’t even know how to use lights’, but actually, it’s like I don’t need lights and that’s the kind of photographer I am and I just use what’s available and I’m really good at it and I get beautiful pictures from it and I’m proud of it. I can say that now but it’s taken a long time.”

10 Seconds will be on show from 6 May – 8 May 2016 at London's Hoxton Gallery. Follow her here for more details

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