Eye On Julia Fullerton-Batten: Personas, Teenage Dreams and More
by Kate Stanworth
Julia Fullerton-Batten/Courtesy of Jenkins Johnson Gallery
“Broken Eggs,” 2005, from the Teenage Stories series.
June 01, 2012 —
Editor’s Note: In May 2012, Julia Fullerton-Batten began press previews for her upcoming exhibition, “Persona,” at the Jenkins Johnson Gallery in New York. The show, which runs now through June 30, features her new series “Mothers & Daughters,” her most recent exploration of the unique and difficult time of adolescence. The exhibit also includes Fullerton-Batten’s recent series “Awkward,”—which delves into interactions between the sexes—and four Limited Edition prints from her iconic and pivotal “Teenage Stories” series, which captures teenagers’ lives and feelings as they change from relative innocence to a heightened awareness of adult life. All of Fullerton-Batten’s series, she says, show regular people who, although quite static and emotionless, bring us closer to understanding the inner workings of the teenage mind.
Julia Fullerton-Batten’s award-winning photos of teenage girls catching butterflies, floating in stylized interiors or posed as giants against miniature houses, are all inspired by how she felt during her own transition from girlhood to adulthood. Her dreamy, itinerant adolescence, living between Germany and the United States, is an endless source of inspiration for the U.K.-based photographer.
“It’s that awkwardness that I had when I was a teenager that I wanted to capture,” she says, referring to one series where girls tower self-consciously over cities, and lie like gigantic rag dolls on diminutive motorways and cul-de-sacs. These scenes are especially poignant for a girl who remembers being very tall for her age. “I was really uncomfortable,” she continues. “I would stick my hip out to one side to make myself feel a bit shorter as I felt like a giant.”
The series, created in 2005, launched Fullerton-Batten—already a successful advertising and editorial photographer—down a new road to becoming a fine artist, winning awards in France, Canada and the U.S., appearing in art galleries around Europe and becoming part of a successful book.
While it was not easy to make the transition from the “two different worlds” of advertising to fine art, her ad background allowed Fullerton-Batten to draw on a sophisticated range of technical knowledge. In order to create a dreamlike, cinematic effect, she would sometimes use more than 20 flash heads, and a large team of assistants.
As well as her personal recollections, the photos draw from fine art paintings—in particular Balthus and Eric Fischl’s brooding portrayals of burgeoning adolescent sexuality, and Edward Hopper’s scenes of urban alienation. Like the painters’ subjects, Fullerton-Batten’s girls are absorbed in moments of reverie that make them seem detached from their surroundings. “When you’re a teenager, you’ve got time to daydream,” Fullerton-Batten says. “I remember being bored, just doing nothing.”
As Fullerton-Batten matured, that boredom evolved into inspiration.
Despite her current accomplishments, Fullerton-Batten says her photo skills developed slowly. After moving to the U.K. at age 16, she took a two-year course in photography, and produced some “really odd” pictures. “I look back on it and I’m not sure I had it in me then,” she says. “I don’t think I had an eye to begin with.”
She considers her experience assisting, more than her education, as what put her on a successful track. “I was going to go on and do a degree, and someone told me I would learn much more being an assistant,” she recalls. “So I just dropped the whole degree thing and moved to London and started freelancing.” With fewer assistants available to choose from back then, Fullerton-Batten became in demand and assisted for a wide range of photographers including those in editorial, auto, fashion, and advertising. The variety worked to her advantage.
“When you just assist one photographer, your style becomes a little bit similar to theirs,” she reflects. “I assisted lots of different photographers. I got involved in post production, looking for locations and helping the stylist. It was quite a good learning curve.”
At 29, with five years of assisting experience behind her, Fullerton-Batten travelled around Vietnam with her then-boyfriend (now husband), and built a small body of work using natural light, a tripod and a Hasselblad. Eight of the images—what she describes as “still lifes on location”—were accepted into the AOP Assistants Award, and she caught the eye of a German agent who got her a $120,000-budget cigarette campaign shoot in Australia.
With the money she earned for the shoot, she was able to launch her solo career, and she began producing her own work. “I got an agent in London and Paris and then in the States and it moved on from then,” she says. Carrying out regular campaigns, she would also take the opportunity to do her own shoots whenever possible, contributing stock to Getty Images as another source of income. Knowing she would earn back the money she invested in shoots gave her the confidence to spend more on her own work, and experiment with ever-more-elaborate lighting set-ups.
All the Way
With the teenage project, Fullerton-Batten hit upon a creative vein. She realized it was turning into a much bigger project and didn’t want to give it to stock libraries. “What I really wanted to do was take it to the galleries and get more into the art side of photography,” she says. “It wouldn’t be good to share these images with stock, it’s kind of frowned upon. So I stopped shooting stock about eight years ago. I would shoot purely for art and my exhibition work.”
After the model cities series, she subsequently produced two more haunting shoots on the subject of teenage girls, creating a similarly unnerving atmosphere. One shows schoolgirls in identical uniforms and wigs, while in another, girls float or jump in mid-air The “floating” series, entitled “In Between,” brought about her first-ever digital shoot in 2008. She had just become a Hasselblad Master and had received a digital camera for three months to shoot her next project. “I really needed to shoot digitally for that because the girls are jumping through the air, but I didn’t want them to look as though they’re jumping—I wanted it to look like they’re floating,” she reflects. “I didn’t want there to be any blur and I wanted them to be expressionless; it helped to shoot digitally so that I knew when I got the shot.”
This slick production of the images is contrasted by the real vulnerability of the models; Fullerton-Batten uses ordinary girls, not professionals. “I kind of like that they haven’t been photographed before and they’re a little bit awkward in front of the camera and I have to guide them,” she says.
Miraculously, there is very little post-processing work on the series. “I did a bit of cleaning up on the skin and color change, but apart from that, everything is there,” she says. Rather than being superimposed onto real towns, the “giant” girls are shot in actual model villages in England, Spain and Belgium. The schoolgirl images are single frames, with nothing removed, which is remarkable when you consider that some contain up to 20 girls all doing different things. Fullerton-Batten embraces the goofs. “Sometimes I like it when maybe an image isn’t perfect,” she says. “My work is already much more polished than most fine-art photographers.”
Where she does use composite images, she is careful that they look as natural as possible. In a shot where girls wander through a field in their nightdresses catching butterflies in nets, for instance, she set up exactly the same lighting as she had used to shoot the girls in a butterfly house, so the elements of the images would match.
But while her fine-art work leans toward keeping post production to a minimum, ad work often requires a much greater input from retouchers. For one image for a children’s charity in Poland, Fullerton-Batten wanted to show the vulnerability of children by combining images of toddlers with broken ceramics.
“I bought loads of porcelain dolls and then after I shot the kids I got a hammer out and started smashing the dolls up quite carefully,” she says. “I got loads of bits and put them in the position where the heads and the limbs were. I gave it to the retoucher and together we worked out which were the best pieces to use.” The image won several awards, and she considers that it gave her portfolio a fresh and different touch.
When asked if she is happy with where she is in her career, Fullerton-Batten reflects on her success in re-establishing herself as a fine artist. “I’m really happy with the direction it’s going because it’s hard to get galleries and be recognized as a fine-art photographer,” she says, adding, “People used to be surprised when I told them I did fine-art photography, but it’s the other way round now as people say to me, ‘oh you do advertising as well!’ ”
Ultimately she has found a way to work the combination to her advantage. “Sometimes the ad shoots can give you new ideas,” she says. “I do what the clients want and then I do something that works for me and for my own portfolio.”
To view more of her work, visit www.juliafullerton-batten.com.
Kate Stanworth is a British-born writer and photographer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She currently works as an editorial photo editor and writes on diverse aspects of art and culture in Argentina.
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