Exclusive Interview with Julia Fullerton-Batten by Agonistica


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It is a pleasure to be able to talk to one of my favorite photographers, Julia Fullerton-Batten, whose Unadorned series we’ve reviewed in the past.

Let’s start with the Unadorned series, in which you portrayed fat men and women naked. Although the theme itself is very strong, there’s something in the composition and the light that really makes them poetically and stylistically “beautiful.” I use the word “beautiful” in the sense of Greek beauty, absolute beauty.

Agonistica: I wanted to ask you, Julia, in this historical moment where contemporary art often rewards the “ugly,” the formless, or chaotic, how important is to convey something visually beautiful?

Julia Fullerton-Batten: My greatest ambition as a photographer is to make a significant contribution to photographic art by combining multiple effects into my images that arouses the curiosity of the viewer and ask her or him to associate in some way with the image. In ‘Unadorned’ I wanted to portray the large people posing in the nude in very beautiful and flattering light – they celebrate their bodies, and reveal their individual beauty as well as to their comfort as to who they are!

In particular today’s women need to be dress size 8 or lower, with sculpted figures, to have no wrinkles and look perpetually young. Even men are becoming more body conscious. With this project I wanted to make a social comment as to how our society and media is so obsessed with the exterior shape of our bodies, that we all overlook the fact that in the end run our inner person and state of mind is more important for true happiness, and not the perfect figure or material well-being.

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Agonistica: Were the models comfortable being naked?

Julia: Most of my models had never modelled before, neither in nor out of clothes. I think they surprised themselves that they could be photographed in the nude, especially in front of a team of assistants, prop stylist, hair- and make-up artist.

It was important for them and for me that we met before the actual shoot. Rather than see them in a starck studio environment I invited them to my home, where we could relax, chat about the project and them taking off their clothes. Finally I took some snap-shots of them naked, that got them in the mood for the shoot and also gave me insight into how I would set up their scene.

Not all of my models were happy with their bodies, but they all seemed to enjoy the experience of being photographed by a professional photographer, and loved the final results.

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Agonistica: How did you organize the casting?

Julia: Casting my models was a very essential part of the ‘Unadorned’ project. Until I had this part of the pre-production phase behind me, I couldn’t really crystallise my thoughts on the scenes that I wanted to shoot, especially as I wished to integrate the personality of my models in a specific scene appropriate to them.

Because of the nature of the project my casting director and I thought that the casting phase for this project would be very time-consuming. As well as using her personal contacts, my casting director advertised, also on my website blog. I think it helped that I am female and am now quite well known amongst people who have a passion for photography. In the end we got quite a large response and were bombarded with e-mails with photos. This was great as I then had a wide choice of models that I could then narrow down before meeting them individually. After the meetings I needed to narrow it down again as there were so many ideal candidates.

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Agonistica: In general, do you prefer to work more with women or men?

Julia: I don’t really prefer to photograph one or the other sexes, each one have its attraction and challenges. I appreciate working with female teenagers and women, because of their sensuality and that I can dress them amazingly. But I also like working with men, they have so many different characters. My own two young boys can be incredibly beautiful and very rewarding to photograph.

Agonistica: Let’s talk a moment about technique. What kind of camera do you use? What lenses?

Julia: For many years I shot exclusively film and worked a lot on a 5×4 Technicarden. I felt happy to work with the polaroids and the large film format. Before digital cameras were developed far enough to match my requirements I was much happier with the feel and results from film, especially for my style of lighting. There came a time though when I found that digital gave similar results, and I changed over; this was about six years ago, later then many other photographers.
Now I work with a Hasselbad and a digital Phase One back. I have several lenses for the camera, but my preference is to use a slightly wide angle one.

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Agonistica: Regarding the lights, do you use flash or continuous lighting? Profoto?

Julia: I enjoy playing with various lighting techniques, including cross-lighting and mixing artificial and natural light together. I don’t use the same lighting set up, I experiment every time. But, I use a lot of artificial lighting, with multiple heads, and even use it on a set outdoors, where I override the ambient light with flash. I use Profoto, Elinchrom, or Broncolor. My lighting technique and tools depends on what I am trying to achieve in a particular shoot or project.

Agonistica: Once you’ve taken the pictures, what is your process in post production?

Julia: I tend not to use much retouching, certainly no cropping, but it is still frequently important to retouch certain parts of my images in order to get the best from them. I am happy to have found an amazing retoucher with whom I work closely, and he now works with me on all my projects.

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Agonistica: Where do you think the market is going? Towards video? Will we have a single person acting as photographer/director in the future?

Julia: There is already quite a shift towards video. In my commercial work that I still do occasionally, I have already been asked to shoot both stills and moving images. I do it somewhat reluctantly as I feel that it always compromises the stills image. However, the few videos that I have done to-date have been quite successful. Strangely there are also more and more directors also doing stills. There is a lot for everybody to learn, before they can be proficient in both still and moving photography.

Agonistica: How did you create the series “In Between”?

Julia: ‘In Between’ is a part of the narrative of the transition of a teenage girl into a woman. In this stage the girl has progressed and is beginning to experience being a woman, but with some of the traits of her teenage years constraining her. In my images, the girl’s upwards progression is still toned with adolescent awkwardness – dropped books, spilt milk, a broken vase.

For this set of images, I had to select girls, whose physical strength enabled them to hoist themselves off a bed, jump into the air, spring against a wall, fall, but at the same time make it look effortless. No harnesses were used as I wanted to make it look as natural as possible. The girls were mostly gymnasts or ballet dancers. I had to avoid sports women with too much muscle strength, as this would have been bad for the effect that I was trying to achieve.

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Agonistica: Do you have permanent employees that handle styling and makeup?

Julia: I don’t have permanent employees, but I most definitely have a team of skilled freelance people with whom I work repeatedly. They understand the way I work, and we work well and in harmony together. Which is just as well, as I am a bit of a perfectionist… I do most of the pre-production phase myself, even sourcing clothing and props from charity shops, visiting locations, etc. But on the shoot I am like a director.

Agonistica: How are you influenced by the art of photography in the past?

Julia: I am also influenced by everyday life, paintings of the past, cinema, and the work of my contemporary photographers. The influences are just that, what one makes out of it is where one develops one’s own abilities and art.

Agonistica: Are you already working on new projects? Can you tell us a bit about them?

Julia: I am presently in the end phase of a project photographing blind people. There are many reasons that this is probably the most challenging project that I have ever undertaken. It is customary in most portrait photography to make the eyes of the sitter the focal point of the image. With blind people as models it doesn’t work in the same way. Here I have a mixture of image and story. In the story part my models describe how they became blind and how they cope with their lack of sight.

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Agonistica: How do you approach creating a new project?

Julia: Simply put – inspiration; decision to do it; pre-pre-plan; pre-plan; preparation; organize; shoot; post-production

I guess that I am a person with quite a lot of inspiration, ideas crop up all the time. More recently I find that I want to do projects with a social commentary, like ‘Awkward’, ‘Unadorned’, and ‘Blind’ Prior to these my teenager series of projects were basically narrative and semi-autobiographical.

After deciding that I want to carry on with a particular inspiration, I start to formulate in rough form scenarios…. At this stage, I don’t stop thinking about ideas, entering them into my notebook with sketches, etc.

During the pre-plan phase I firm up my ideas so that I can then progress smoothly into the preparation phase when I look for and find models, locations, clothing, props, etc.

I then organize the shoot, set dates, inform my models and team members, arrange transport, hotels (if needed) and insurance cover; hire the location (if needed) and equipment, etc. It often entails another viewing of the location(s), check of the weather forecast if it’s an outside shoot, etc, etc.

After getting to the place of the shoot I have planned everything down to the last detail and can brief my team on what will happen during the day. The team then can arrange the setting and the lighting, whilst I brief my models and get them into a relaxed mood, as all of them are doing a shoot for the very first time.

The essence of my photographic techniques is the perfect planning, yet realizing that sometimes things can go wrong or aren’t possible and then to have the flexibility to change things around without getting into a panic.

The creative idea runs through the entire project from start to finish – the day of the shoot and the post-production phases are the culmination of a great deal of effort.

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