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Polly Penrose studied Graphic Design at Camberwell College of Arts in London. She went on to work in Fashion Styling and after that worked for the photographer Tim Walker. She has always taken photographs but started to take the practice seriously when she entered and won a competition held by the London Photographic Association in 2008.
Penrose has been taking self-portraits on a ten-second timer and more recently a remote for nearly 20 years. Her work is unpremeditated and spontaneous and records her responding to her environment. She explores identity and the opposed notions of vulnerability and empowerment, comedy and tragedy. Her pictures focus less on sexuality and female allure, but retain the awkward, often beguiling force of the body as an object, pushed into a space, forced into a position whilst feigning a sense of normality and control.
She held her first solo show, A Body of Work, at the Downstairs at Mother Gallery, London, in May 2014, and her second solo show 10 Seconds at the Hoxton Gallery, London, in May 2016. The same year, she exhibited in the group shows Self Reflection at the Untitled Space, New York, and All Inclusive at the HVW8 Gallery, Berlin. In 2018, she showed work in Spring Break Art Show in New York, and at Messum’s Wiltshire as part of the group show Image. Her third solo show, Self Obscured, was at the Benrubi Gallery, New York in 2019, and the same year in Gossamer, curated by Zoe Bedeaux at the Carl Freedman Gallery, Margate. In September 2020, she exhibited in Emerging Contemporaries at the Michael Hoppen Gallery and A Picture of Health, Woman Photographers from the Hyman Collection, at the Arnolfini Gallery Bristol.
Her work has been featured widely in publications including The Guardian, Dazed Digital, The British Journal of Photography, The Huffington Post, and Artnet.
Interview with Polly Penrose
by Dr Claudia Milburn
Q. What first inspired your practice?
Firstly, very simply the desire to present the female nude differently. My way. I wanted to make nudes that I hadn’t seen before. Secondly, logistics – I’m a self-taught photographer and shooting other people seemed intimidating so I thought I’d start by using myself as a model, which after a while morphed into becoming my own muse!
Q. What has been your background/training and how influential has that subsequently been?
I studied Graphic Design, went on to work in fashion styling and then as studio manager to Tim Walker. Both Graphic Design and styling deal in shape and form, so they definitely make their way into my work. As studio manager for Tim Walker I was surrounded by the energy and amazing talent of not just Tim, but all the incredible creatives he worked with – it was a wonderful environment and one that I’ll always be incredibly grateful to have been a part of. I learned a lot. Tim was always, and continues to be, a real champion of my photography and gave a lot of encouragement and sage advice.
Q. Can you tell me more about your subject matter and the motivation for your work?
Finding beauty in very ordinary everyday things and making them quietly extraordinary. There is something in the process of liberating an object away from its purpose and giving it a new meaning. I guess that’s what both of us are doing. A rescue blanket is transformed from being a first aid necessity to being a glittering dancing silver flame, as much as I go from being Polly inhabiting the various roles in my life, to being part of that flame. Co-joined. My work is the FINDING of that connection both physically and visually.
(A fetish suit, some newspaper and Polly, turn into a macabre sculpture, Polly and lilo fight, embrace in a sweaty struggle, Polly and (wobbly) bannisters become one and the same).
It’s the same with the houses I shoot in, they are between roles. No longer being a home for a particular family they are impossibly sad and beautiful to me and I find a way of turning them into something else, a graphic, a shape, a feeling that I work my way into.
Q. Who or what has been your greatest influence as an artist?
The first book art book I bought when I was 12 (with my art prize money!!) was a book of Lucian Freud’s painting. That book had a massive impact on me, and his work still amazes me.
There are so many artists, mostly painters and photographers whose work has permeated my practice – but it’s usually random images or sights that I see rather than a particular artists work that influence me.
If we’re talking specifics, I love Paula Rego’s work, Milton Avery, Dorothea Tanning. Photographers – I love a lot of fashion photographers including Viviane Sassen and art photographers – Jo Ann Callis, Bettina Rheims, Hellen van Meene, Ren Hang and Tim Walker (obviously!!).
Q. What is the most challenging element of your practice?
Increasingly the physicality of it, always the carving out of time to DO it, and finding places to make work.