The dramatic, cinematic and sometimes enigmatic images of photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten are sought after by the top ad agencies and art collectors worldwide. She’s the rare photographer who successfully straddles the commercial and fine art worlds; doing so with a boldly beautiful look that explores the emotions of maturing into an adult.
Fullerton-Batten’s accomplishments — including dozens of exhibitions, commissions and awards — are a result of her aesthetic eye, skillful execution and commitment to meaningful subject matter. She consistently blends autobiographical fact with fantasy fiction, resulting in imagery that is close to her heart and approachable to the masses.
In our recent telephone interview Fullerton-Batten begins by detailing the creation of a commission she did for the Nobody’s Children Foundation. She later discusses fascinating details about the concept and execution of three of her fine art projects and relays valuable experience for photographers who want to follow in her footsteps.
Seckler: Please tell me about the concept for your commission by the Nobody’s Children Foundation to create the image we’re featuring.
Fullerton-Batten: The campaign is against child abuse, about children being hit by their parents. I was approached by DDB in Warsaw and having very young children myself I thought it would be for a good cause. They wanted one shot of a girl, and one of a boy. The one of the girl shows her in trance and in a really shocked state, as if she has just been hit by somebody. DDB wanted me to show in her expression how fragile children are. We used porcelain parts, as if a part of her head or a part of her body were damaged. We worked hard during retouching to get the different elements to look as realistic as possible.
Seckler: I think it comes across beautifully. Tell me about your approach to the lighting.
Fullerton-Batten: I wanted to keep the lighting very clinical, so I chose a friend’s house as location, it being very minimalist and modern. I kept the lighting extreme using different sizes and shapes of soft boxes. I also had my assistants put lights on the roof, aimed through a skylight.
Seckler: Why did you want a clinical feel for this?
Fullerton-Batten: I thought that the concept, the idea, and the imagery should be a bit surreal. I felt it suited the imagery, rather than going really dark and moody. It is already quite a shocking image, and I felt it didn’t need the dark, moody, atmospheric, cinematic feel that I normally do.
Seckler: Can you take us through the technical creation of this image?
Fullerton-Batten: This image was shot with a Hasselblad 503CW, Leaf Aptus 75 digital back and 60mm lens at f16 @ 1/125 of a sec. For this image I used a total of 9 lights. I had a large soft box with an Elinchrom head attached to an Elinchrom 404 pack on a giraffe boom so that I could bring light through the ceiling window. Then I had two more Elinchrom heads powered by a [Elinchrom] 303 pack each, with soft box’s either side of the camera to fill the room for me. I had a second boom with a beauty dish, again with an Elinchrom head and 404 pack, over the girl to sculpt her face and bring a shine to her hair. On the camera I had a Profoto ring-flash to lift the girl’s skin tones for that porcelain look, I also had another Elinchrom head with an [Elinchrom] 202 pack [plus] 2 Profoto heads with 7B packs and grids to bring out certain areas within the cabinets, table and backlight the girl. Finally [I used the] Bowens pioneer to kick some light across the floor.
Seckler: Where did your interest in photography begin and what was your path to becoming a professional?
Fullerton-Batten: My father was very passionate about photography. He would always take photographs of the places he visited and of us children growing up. He had his own darkroom and he did his own printing. When I was about 15, he gave me a really old Minolta. I don’t remember this personally, but he said the first thing I photographed was a plastic bag floating through the air.
We moved to England when I was 16, and I did my A-levels in photography but I never thought I could make a living out of it. However, I did some more research and found that one could study photography more seriously. So I did a diploma and nearly started to do a degree. However I had a photographer friend at college who missed out doing the degree and became an assistant. He convinced me that I would learn much more being an assistant than doing a degree. I took his advice and moved to London, where I assisted freelance for five years.
During that period I was so busy I didn’t have any time to take my own photos. But I kept a large notepad in which, after every shoot, I would enter all that I had learned that day, sketch little lighting diagrams and keep all the Polaroids from the shoot. I also noted down things that I liked about the photographer and things that I didn’t like. I also set out to assist lots of different photographers so I wouldn’t get too influenced by just one. Some photographers didn’t have a clue what they were doing and we had to make up the lighting diagrams after the shoot. These I then kept, and from then on I made them up by myself. It was a huge learning curve.
Seckler: And that was when you ventured off on your own?
Fullerton-Batten: I went to Vietnam with a friend for six weeks, carrying cameras, tripods, and film. I took lots of photos, many observational, such as a girl crocheting, but not showing her face just her hands; or a very simple one of a cup on a table. When we came back to London I entered a number of these images in the AOP Awards. I was delighted when I got an image on the front cover of the AOP Awards book and eight images in it. At the time ad buyers went to the AOP Awards night to look for young talent, I was fortunate enough to be approached by a German agent, and within six months got a big campaign to shoot in Australia on a £120,000 budget.
Seckler: What year it was when you got that first job?
Fullerton-Batten: About ten years ago.
Seckler: And your first major personal project series was when?
Seckler: And that’s Teenage Stories?
Seckler: I love that series, can you tell me about the concept and how you created it?
Fullerton-Batten: I love taking photos and, at the time, I was relying on ad agencies to give me work. I went through a quiet month and I had the feeling that I wanted to shoot what I felt passionate about for once. I began to develop a way out idea, involving a study of teenagers. I visited some model villages in the UK, built up little towns that generally related to some aspect of local history. Some of them look very real, just small. I found them intriguing, almost surreal. I then thought, what if I put someone in this village, in this little town, doing something? It would make a really interesting shoot. I shot the first of what turned out to be a series in England. I visited the location beforehand and pre-planned everything, except the weather, then went off for a couple of days with a number of street-cast teenage girls, my equipment and a huge lighting van, and about five assistants. We spent a day shooting. After that I did shoots based on the same basic idea in four other locations, but abroad. After the second or third big shoot I suddenly realized that the series related in many ways to my own childhood experiences – my sister having a bicycle accident, or that when we lived in America during the summer months we would spend our days running around barefoot and in swimwear, as seen in the image of the girl in the bikini getting the milk.
Seckler: So you did these separate shoots, and then what?
Fullerton-Batten: I went to art galleries and asked if they would exhibit my fine-art work. The standard reply was ‘no, photographers don’t approach us. We approach them.’ I always entered competitions and I did very well in them. But I was keen to have my work shown on a wider context. I wasn’t getting anywhere until Eric Franck in London took me on as an artist and also showed my work at Paris Photo, and different art fairs. That was the great breakthrough.
Seckler: You still do both fine art work and commercial work, but tell me about that early transition into getting exposure in the fine art world.
Fullerton-Batten: I felt that art galleries had a prejudice against unknown photographers. ‘You aren’t with an art gallery, so why are you approaching us?’
Seckler: Do you feel galleries look down on photographers, or were they turned off by the fact you were successful in the commercial world?
Fullerton-Batten: I still have a problem with that, being successful in both.
Fullerton-Batten: People say that I have to separate those two worlds.
Seckler: Why do you think that is?
Fullerton-Batten: I don’t know, because I see some very well-known fine-art photographers who also do ad shoots, so why is it such a big thing. It feels to me that people want me to keep it as two completely separate worlds. But my advertising was paying for my fine art. How would I ever have been able to pay to do a personal shoot that cost me thousands of pounds without the income from my commercial work?
Seckler: Do you think you would have been able to create these images that are so successful in the fine art world if you didn’t do advertising first?
Fullerton-Batten: I think you learn a great deal by taking photographs. When you’re doing an ad shoot, it is generally a big production. Even if I’m not responsible for the creative side of the shoot, I can cooperate with suggestions. Also I am responsible for most of the pre-production, the lighting and getting the right ambience, trying out lots of different things, and some of the post-production work. Yes, I learn from every shoot and, yeah, it has benefited me. I always learn more by doing and producing images. If you have got the budget to produce images, you can be more selective in what you do, more elaborate.
Seckler: So tell me about the success of your fine art work.
Fullerton-Batten: Well, I sell quite a number of images worldwide. I get interviewed a lot now, and I’ve got galleries all around the world approaching me to show my work either solo or in a general exhibition about every three weeks. I’m being more selective about the galleries exhibiting my work, and I’m not so quick to have it just show anywhere. I’ve also become much more careful about my interviews and where they are going to be published.
Seckler: What’s are some creative differences between ad photography and fine art photography?
Fullerton-Batten: With ad photography, you are creative, but you’re not as creative as in your personal work. But you still have to be creative, because give ten different photographers, the same brief, the same layout, you have to come up with ten totally different images to satisfy the customer’s requirements.
As a fine art photographer, you create and develop the idea. It has to come from deep inside you, then you’ve got to develop it until you feel fully satisfied that it is right. You can’t just have the idea and shoot it in one day. Everybody’s different, but with me it takes a long time for pre-production and preparation for the shoot itself. It really is a labor of love. Then the ad shoots come in between, and I have to concentrate on those, before returning to my own personal work. It is not easy to get into fine art.
Seckler: What advice do you have for photographers who are in the advertising world, who want to follow your path of also doing fine art?
Fullerton-Batten: They have to shoot a body of work that really comes from the heart and is their own style, just shoot what they want to shoot, not influenced by anybody else. Once they have a body of work, they should enter the really important competitions, and keep on entering. Also, they should get their work published in some of the real beautiful photography magazines because all the galleries look at the magazines. They should believe in themselves. And there’s no harm in approaching galleries.
Seckler: Are you going more toward fine art? Are you seeing yourself doing fewer commissions in the future?
Fullerton-Batten: Definitely. But I would never stop doing commission work, because some projects are really interesting. And some ad campaigns are really beautiful. And someone is paying me to produce some really beautiful imagery, so why would I turn that down? I just love to take photographs, but it would be great to get into a position where if an ad agency came to me and said, ’Will you shoot this?’ And I look at it and can reply, ‘Actually no. It’s not really my style. I don’t really want to do that.’ It would be great, if I could pick and choose my ad shoots.
Seckler: I’d like to circle back and talk about another one of your fine art projects. Tell me about the concept for In Between.
Fullerton-Batten: ‘In Between’ illustrates the transition from female pubescence to adulthood. It’s a psychological change and a body change. I wanted to show it in a completely different way from just showing a girl growing older. It’s a continuation of my other teenage series, ‘Teenage Stories’. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but there’s always something dramatic happening in each image. Not over the top, just very subtle. Like a glass of milk that’s poured over or a book that’s been dropped, or a lamp that’s broken, or, in the bed image, the wind has taken hold of the sheets and blown them around a bit.
Seckler: Yes, why did you put those details in?
Fullerton-Batten: To show that it’s a difficult stage in your life. Teenage girls question their own identity, have insecurities and self-doubts.
Seckler: Why do you focus on the teenage years?
Fullerton-Batten: Because I can relate to it most. It’s my own path, it’s my own childhood. I went through it all – the problems, the embarrassments. I would look at myself, and be incredibly self-conscious
Seckler: So would it be safe to say that when you’re looking at these images, in a way you’re looking at a former self? A former Julia Fullerton-Batten?
Seckler: You have such extraordinary locations, and in this In Between series especially. How did you get access to all of these beautiful spaces?
Fullerton-Batten: I try to find interesting locations. I search the Internet, use location libraries, and cut out things I see in newspapers or magazines. Once I get permission to shoot, I visit the locations once or twice so I know exactly what angles I’m shooting when it comes to actually being there for the shoot.
Seckler: What was your technique for getting the models to float in these images?
Fullerton-Batten: Very, very fast flash to freeze the models, and no special effects. All one shot.
Seckler: So you just had them jump?
Fullerton-Batten: Yes, I needed these girls to have really strong core stability. I met girls who were very fit in the way that they had done a lot of dance, gymnastics, ballet.
Seckler: Let’s talk about your series School Play.
Fullerton-Batten: For School Play, I was intrigued about children wearing school uniforms, everyone looking the same, but in different behavioral patterns. In England for example there is a lot more bullying. In China it’s more regimented. I wanted to show these differences, even if they look similar in immaculate school uniforms. There is a shot of a girl cutting another girl’s hair, but all the other girls are ignoring that it’s happening. In the Chinese version I wanted to show how disciplined the Chinese are, everything is so much more regimented and ordered. By showing them all doing the same thing, it appears that nothing much is going on. They’re like little clones. They all look more similar. They all have the same hairstyle, they’ve all got the same look, everything.
I was going to make ‘School Play’ into a huge project, traveling to other countries and do a entire study of the cultural differences between teenagers of different nationalities. In the end, although I started the project with these intentions, I have not wanted to complete. Frankly, I didn’t really feel so passionate about the idea and other priorities took over, so I just stopped it. Even now, when I publish my work, it’s the work I like to show least. I don’t think it’s as powerful as the other images. I don’t have a strong connection to it. Maybe because it’s not really related to my own life as much, because I didn’t need to wear a uniform.
Seckler: Where do you think your work will be in five years? Do you think you’ll continue gravitating more towards creating fine art?
Fullerton-Batten: Oh, I know where I would like my work to be. I’d like to have my work in collections in museums, like the portraits that are in the National Portrait Gallery in London. I’d like to choose only the ad campaigns that I feel passionate about. And yes, definitely continue with my fine art projects as my main work.
Seckler: How do you see yourself getting to that point, specifically with the fine art work?
Fullerton-Batten: I feel it is really important for me to keep projects going, but because I have just had a baby – well he’s nearly one now – I haven’t shot anything on a personal level for a while. I’ve been focusing on other things for the last year. Apart from which, it probably helps to have a little break sometimes, to reflect on things, rather than to shoot just for the sake of shooting. However, I feel that I’m really back in the swing of things again, and I’m really ready to do something totally new and fresh. Also, I now have an idea that I feel really passionate about. It’s taken me a while to get the idea, but it’s going to be really exciting to prepare for the shoot and to see the results.
Written by Zack Seckler
Edited by Greg Faherty
This piece was originally published 11/1/10 on Zack Seckler’s formally named publication The F STOP.