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Photography by Mark Borthwick - Not in Fashion

Mark Borthwick - ‘Not In Fashion’

The seminal photographer infuses light and love into his work, celebrated in a major retrospective

For London-born, New York based photographer Mark Borthwick; love, art, life, music and even food all seamlessly meld into the other to create work that is like no other. He forgoes digitized perfection and moody nihilism to capture intimate moments in the lives of his models, family and friends, usually in the throes of happiness and love.  By experimenting with overexposing film, he creates an almost otherworldly light that saturates the images. Borthwick was a defining photographer of the 90’s, helping then-fledgling magazines like Purple, Self Service and AnOther traverse the interstitial territories between art and fashion that’s almost taken for granted today. He celebrated the recent release of his retrospective monograph with Rizzoli, ‘Not In Fashion’ with a weeklong series of performances at the Journal Gallery in New York that mixed poetry readings with live performances in a way that generated a communal intimacy, much like his work does.

Dazed Digital: How did you start in fashion?

Mark Borthwick: As a teenager, from a Punk I became a New Romantic and I was really into make-up. Through wearing make-up and living in squats around London, I met other friends and the opportunity arose to do people’s make-up. I slowly got introduced to bands and people in the fashion industry, and I became a make-up artist.

DD: Your work is like no-other but who do you see as contemporaries in photography?

Mark Borthwick: That’s a complicated question! First and foremost I always find it easier to talk about friends. And some of them may be people you’ve never heard of before. I’m happy to respectfully congratulate other photographers whose work I think is fine but outside of that world, I think it’s about relationships. You’re surrounded by friends who have the same feeling. It’s always been important to me to nurture that feeling. For me photography is less about the documentation that it is about a shared experience. Once the experience is shared, then it’s very much the feelings other people get from the image, what the image is trying to say to them.

I don’t find photography right now to be the most exciting medium. It’s become closer to painting. There’s an incredible amount of opportunity but most people are shooting digital.

DD: Is digital anathema to you? Photos look so airbrushed today but there is a rawness to your work.

Mark Borthwick: As long as I can buy film, I will continue to work with film. I’m interested in the transparency. It’s the luminosity, the nothingness. It’s something that’s quite fragile and doesn’t actually fit. When I work, a lot of things happen by surprise. It’s trying to opportune a little voice in myself where I let go of control of the image and let things happen. I think that’s something that has happened with visual photography, it’s become so controlled. It’s like a mechanism, you look at the computer, you don’t have the time to feel the images. I recognise that a lot of people work like machines and I could never do that. I’ve learnt to find another way of working.

DD: The light in your work is ethereal, a whole other presence in the image. Is it a process of carefully controlled chaos or trial and error?

Mark Borthwick: Truthfully it’s still a surprise. It’s different every time. It really does depend on the temperature of the light, the brightness of the light, if I expose the image directly to the sun or directly to the shade or candlelight. It’s a little bit like a mindgame, it gives you the opportunity to lose yourself a little bit and play a little game with yourself where you are losing control. The control itself is not so much that I know what’s going to happen but that there’s different ways to doing it. For sure I get an enormous amount of joy because it does eminently produce these images that are otherworldly and come from another time. They have a vibrational effect and make me go, ‘Wow!’ and make me tickle and feel good. That’s something new.

DD: You’ve been taking photos of iconic women like Cat Power, Chloe Sevigny and Stella Tennant for over 10 years now. How have you seen them grow and how has your relationship with them developed over this time?

Mark Borthwick: It’s more as a friend than as a photographer. All these people have become friends because of our children. My daughter, Bebe became a very good friend of Chan Marshall. (Cat Power) Bebe speaks to her a lot more than I do! And it’s a beautiful thing. They have a very pure kinship together from when Bebe was a very young girl.

I realize in the last year editing and archiving all my work, I realized what I love about photography rather than just being in the now that with photography as documentation or as a source, is time itself. The photographers I admire and the images that really have a connection with me are the people who’ve documented their lives over a certain amount of time. You can really feel a sense of time, a sense of history, of families and kids growing up. A sense of something really pure. It’s not controlled or contrived or conceptual in any sense but they exist because you were there and it happened over a course of time and there’s a feeling attached to that and it’s very very beautiful.

DD: I love “Speaking With Trees”, the DVD you did with Cat Power. How did that come about? Would you like to experiment with film more?

Mark Borthwick: That was a beautiful opportunity again. I was in Portland, Oregon and went to see her play in a bar and it was the finest concert I’d seen in a while. I just sat there, really stunned in another world and it was as if I was sitting in a garden. I felt like I could make a movie of it. We talked about it for many years and waited for the right time to do it.

Once I’ve finished working on a couple of other books by mid next year, I’d love to take some time out and write a little book. And to take the feeling of the story itself and turn that into a small little film. Who knows? I haven’t done it yet! But it’s where I’d like to go.

DD: There’s such a sense of joy and purity to your work.

Mark Borthwick: You’re right, there’s a lot of joy. (laughs) I remember when I was a really young kid just starting out taking pictures, I was taking these pictures of partying every night which were completely sensational but at the same time I realized there was a voice inside me that I wanted to share something else with the world. Maybe provide a different voice. I didn’t want to use neo-nihilistic images to provide a body of work. I realized that wasn’t me.

I was lucky that I had children so young which gave me so much joy. It helped me nurture a really kid side of myself. That introduced a sense of fun into the images. I was lucky to be introduced to working with the Japanese quite young and they were very quick to recognise a sense of peace in the images. That gave me the courage to take the leap a little bit. It helped me find my voice I guess. It comes from listening, not to what everyone else is doing but listen to yourself and find your own little thing. It was about creating an image that was full of peace and love.

DD: What compels you to document the things around you?

Mark Borthwick: Again, the easiest answer is over time. Over time you’re able to see these codes and patterns you create. I’ll always be photographing the cracks in the street because I see so much life in these little mundane places. I’ll always be in the park with the kids photographing the early Spring days. It’s probably truly about the light and maybe the vibration from the light itself. It brings me so much joy that I know I want to share it with other people. I think there’s a certain aspect of photography where it’s like a drug. You’re documenting everything that you love to look at and everything you love to feel. It’s an opportunity to become part of the light. Maybe that’s all we are, we’re just light.

DD: Music is a big touchstone in your work. You’ve collaborated with musicians and make your own music. How does making music and making art linked with each other?

Mark Borthwick: It all comes together pretty much as one. Initially it was just a sweet pastime that you do at home. Cooking is one of my favourite things and my wife would say, “You should do it in a gallery!” I was invited to the art fair in Cologne and I lived in the space every day and people would drop by and say hi, and I would cook dinners. I brought my guitar along and didn’t intend to start performing but I did.

Me and my friend, Hisham (Baroocha from Black Dice) started making music as Usun. We haven’t released anything yet. We played this summer with The Boredoms and we may release something this year. I don’t think I’ve ever pursued something as a professional career, I like the amateur side. Not only has it become one thing but I think it’s become a bit like my photography – very communal and collaborative. It is about bringing people together. By creating these communal evenings where we’re cooking and playing music, it’s on a very small scale which is just how I like it. Because then it’s just like doing it at home.

DD: You seem to have an ambivalent relationship to fashion. What makes you dip your toes back into fashion every now and then?

Mark Borthwick: I don’t feel like I’ve never been part of it because I still have quietly been doing things but I just didn’t want to participate in the hierarchical side of it. The older I got, I realized I got a lot of joy out of doing what my voice was telling me to do. But I wasn’t given the opportunity to practise it. I’m not really allowed to do the images I like for a magazine like Purple anymore. I’m really interested in fashion and styling but I have no interest in participating in the daily rigmarole of what’s happening right now. That’s really boring and completely unfashionable.

For me fashion images has to be about something that’s true, this is the way that we dress. I don’t want to create images that are contrived and sensational. I don’t want to be putting too many images out there otherwise it’d end up all looking the same. I feel like I had my time. There was an extreme luxury to work with a mag like Purple, AnOther at that time and get 30 pages to do whatever you want. There’s a new generation of kids out there and they should have those pages. Then again I was really really happy with my recent story in AnOther. It gave me great joy to see a magazine that was laid out in such a fresh way.

DD: You’ve been in this business for over 15 years. How do you keep pushing forward?

Mark Borthwick: I think it’s because I like doing too many different things! It’s like falling in love all over again. There was never a plan. I’m not really good at setting an agenda. I much prefer to go with the day to day flow. Wonderful things happen when they’re not planned. I like having a certain sense of chaos around me. Let it just happen. Then it surprises me.

DD: It seems a pretty idyllic life. Are you a big old hippy at heart?

Mark Borthwick: You’ll have to ask my wife that question! (laughs) My wife (Maria Cornejo) is a fancy fashion designer so it seems absurd to be called that. I try to emanate a certain sense of freedom in my work and how I live my life and if that has to be attached to a label that’s fine.