Investing his poetic, sun-drenched images with the friends, family, love and harmony that defines his way of life, award-winning photographer and artist, Mark Borthwick, has become one of the most influential photographers of his generation by following his own vision. Challenging the conventions of fashion photography with experimental images that convey an idiosyncratic humour and optimism, the Brooklyn-based, London-born avant-garde photographer, film-maker and musician Mark Borthwick, has over the past 15 years shot for magazines Purple, Self-service, i-D, Inteview and AnOther Magazine, as well as collaborating with, and shooting campaigns for Comme des Garcons, Martin Margiela, Yohji Yamamoto, Adidas, Nike and Vanessa Bruno. Recently, Borthwick has created films with Mike Mills, Chan Marshal (Cat Power) and Chloe Sevigny, while also regularly creating installations, drawings and texts for unconventional exhibitions that include musical performances, poetry readings and dinner parties. At home with his wife and two children (who are more often than not the subjects of his evocative photographs) in Brooklyn, New York, the multi-talented Mark Borthwick talks unfashionable fashion, his love of people and film versus digital with Indigo Clarke.
Oyster: Your work appears so unselfconscious and optimistic – your images like poetic documents of everyday moments. How did your technique, and love of photography, develop?
Mark Borthwick: After a while, you realise you love everything that you look at – all the people and things that make up your world. So it’s very natural to nurture all those aspects of your life – and that gives you the courage to share these beautiful things, your family and your friends, with people through photography. I am always about letting images breathe – for them to not be about me necessarily, but perhaps remind people of their own lives and sweet moments. I believe the sweetest images are images people can feel. This is something that brings the image back to the beginning. I thrive in that moment – the beginning, which is why I nurture the amateur side of things. I always want to learn and find more. Fashion photography can become very controlled, which is why I moved away from that.
Oyster: Have you always taken such a personal approach?
Mark Borthwick: Over the course of time you begin to follow your own vision and direction – to trust the way you do things. For me, the light opens this path.
Oyster: Do you literally mean light – like sunlight? Much of your photography involves radiant light and overexposure…
Mark Borthwick: Yes exactly – for me sunlight, and the effect of light on film, has helped me to not have to control the image. I like the light to control the image. Starting out, I was involved mostly with fashion photography for magazines and advertising campaigns – fashion to me just seemed so unfashionable and attached to material codes that didn’t exist for me. So whenever I had the opportunity to shoot fashion there was a conflict – I wasn’t inspired by it, so to make it interesting I would flip it and work my own way. I saw the humour behind fashion – the people that just take it so seriously made me laugh. I wanted to have fun, and create work that was fun even in a fashion context.
Oyster: What inspired your irreverent take on fashion?
Mark Borthwick: I think it was attached to being young when I started out as a photographer, and being so young when I had children – I was just trying to create ways to laugh, smile and reflect myself and my attitude through my work. To me, this gave the images some meaning. There is so much importance placed on fashion images that are actually devoid of any substance – so I was continually questioning the nature of fashion photography. Being older now, I understand what has always driven my work – it is a real love of people. My photography is always about friends and my family, taking those relationships and the environment around me to create a shared experience that is not ego-driven.
Oyster: Do you think your teen years as a punk and new romantic in London, and being a part of that creative, non-conformist scene, inspired your egalitarian attitude?
Mark Borthwick: Yes, it influenced it enormously. Being a 15 year old kid in the punk movement was all about dressing up and going with the flow. We would all dress up and do each others make-up, we were all gender bending, living together and sleeping together in squats, it was very free.
Oyster: Is this when your interest in photography began – documenting the exciting and unconventional lives of yourself and friends?
Mark Borthwick: Actually no, I didn’t take any pictures. I had no interest in photography until I was about 24. I never planned on doing anything, it really happened on its own volition. I was DJing and having a fine time – not concentrating on having a defined career – just doing loads of creative things.
Oyster: And you’re still involved in a lot of other mediums like performance art, poetry readings, music, film and even cook at some of your events…
Mark Borthwick: Yes, I’m always involved in loads of different things. There are lots of things I love to do and I don’t take any of them too seriously, even photography. I always try to bring different aspects of my life into my work, exhibitions and events. Sometimes my exhibitions become dinner parties - it gives me so much joy to have this kind of shared experience. All the things I do are one – they are all a part of me.
Oyster: You’ve also collaborated with some amazing people like Cat Power and the Japanese noise band The Boredoms. Which collaborations have really stood out for you?
Mark Borthwick: All the collaborations I’ve done have been really nurturing and inspiring. I’ve been really lucky to follow my own path and to have had the opportunity to meet people I really love. Working with and being friends for many years with people like Chloe Sevigny and Chan Marshall (Cat Power) has been really sweet and we’ve done some exciting things together. I never had an agenda or planned out a career – I just had the desire to learn and try new things, and I’m still learning.
Oyster: You have also released many beautiful photo books – one recently at journal Gallery in Brooklyn - why is it important for you to compile your images and get them out there this way? I know you now rarely take on editorial work in magazines as you want to leave the door open for a new wave of photographers…
Mark Borthwick: I felt that we were so image saturated, and I wanted to take a step back and let young photographers have the opportunity to shoot for the fashion magazines and ads I wanted to take a break from. It felt a good time to focus on more creative things – and I have two young kids and I wanted to enjoy time with them. I started making books after being approached by some publishers – it seemed a nice way to get my work out there in a non-commercial context. One book that just launched a couple months ago was with the Australian designers and artists PAM – it’s called ‘If we’re pioneers’.
Oyster: Over the course of your career, you would have seen the shift from film to digital. Today you still shoot exclusively with film – is it the chance and accidental nature of film that maintains your interest?
Mark Borthwick: I have no interest whatsoever in working with a computer – and when you shoot digital you have to. I’ve always worked with slide film – my work is all about the light and transparency. I experiment, cross process and expose the slide film to a lot of light. You can’t do this with digital. I don’t believe that digital photography is photography. It is like a new medium. I think it’s closer to painting – in that a digital image can be photo-shopped and transformed endlessly. It is no longer a document of reality – it is not real. It is a new world, a new medium and I don’t want to say it’s not exciting because it is – and one day I might want to work that way. I have a funny feeling that in years to come a whole new generation will discover film for the first time and it will have a renaissance.
Oyster: There’s always so much going on in your world – what are some upcoming exhibitions or performances?
Mark Borthwick: (Laughs) Really, truthfully the next three to four months will be so terribly busy. I’ll be going to Paris, Berlin, Spain and Tokyo for some exhibitions, and then I’m having an exhibition at a gallery in New York later in the year. I’ve been doing performance nights regularly in Brooklyn where there’s music, art and food, and it’s a chance to collaborate with new people and share the experience with people who want to be a part of it.