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'A Body of Work', Polly Penrose 06
A Body of WorkPhotography Polly Penrose

Body liberation through the lens

Polly Penrose frees women from body anxiety by exploring her own identity through these striking nudes

Polly Penrose has mastered the art of the nude selfie – and then some. The London-based photographer has just wrapped her first solo exhibition, where she showed A Body of Work, a series of nude self-portraits celebrating the female body for all its flaws and imperfections. Developed over seven years, the pictures she took reflected her then-emotional mental state – although she didn’t realise it at the time.

The series, which Penrose describes as a “compulsion that just grew and grew”, shows the photographer fitting her body into spaces – over a stack of chairs, in the corner where stairs meet floor, and even on a boardroom table. She explains: “My pictures are simply a response to a space and its contents. I’m not thinking about communicating through them as I shoot. They are a physical conversation between me and the space.”

A Body of Work has spawned its own sub-series, I Was Never Good at Yoga. An ABOW picture that never was, the project was shot in just a few hours in a yoga studio and sees Penrose reinterpreting her own work to produce something unique in its own right. “A Body Of Work has become a series but it’s made up of singular images. It’s its longevity that pulls it together,” Penrose says. “I Was Never Good At Yoga is four hours’ work; it’s more studio based and I’m reacting just to the contents of a space – there are no other furnishings or visual props.”

Since A Body of Work began, Penrose has recieved a flood of encouraging emails. “I’ve had a lot of emails from women that have seen my pictures and felt moved enough to write how they have been ashamed of their bodies as they age, and even hated them after giving birth,” she says. “They wrote to say how liberating it is to see a ‘real’ unretouched body that is documented honestly, and that it’s helped them accept and even love the transformation in their own bodies. This message was never my intention, but I think you should embrace the way people see your work and let it guide you.”

In this way, Penrose also considers her work an expression of identity. “I only realised that A Body of Work was emotive in a biographical sense after shooting for years. As the work progressed and I did different projects, it became clear that my pictures explore female identity – hat it is to be a woman now, with all the complexity, strength, bravery and humour that entails. It’s about how we fit in to all the myriad roles that are expected of us.”