Fine art photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten is fabled for her still life compositions. The German-born and now British-based photographer constructs surrealist scenes by negotiating elaborate sets and using props, costumes and models to create stories. Her photographs, which bear an almost theatrical quality, typically evoke European folklore. Increasingly, however, she has grounded her art within more contemporary analyses of society and culture.
“I was very much influenced by William Eggleston and his use of colour, and I really loved his compositions,” she says, explaining the impetus and influences behind her decision to become a photographer. “Before Eggleston, the photography world was primarily black and white. He was at the forefront of accepting colour. I really enjoyed his way of seeing things, and I spent a lot of time studying his work.”
Julia Fullerton-Batten, Fashion and Portrait Photographer, shot for the Sky Arts and Adobe series, ‘My Greatest Shot.’
Her seminal photo series, titled Teenage Stories (2005), peers into the inner-worlds of teenage girls navigating puberty. It provides a nuanced portrait of girlhood; the loss of it, and the process of transitioning into the realm of womanhood. To which the oversized, despondent teenaged figures in her story are shown resting on miniaturised buildings. On the significance of that project, she notes: “It set me up in the fine art world. Suddenly galleries were looking at my work and my art was being shown in major art fairs.”
In other collections, Julia assesses womanhood through the lens of fraught familial relations between Mothers and Daughters (2011). In the photo series The Act (2016), she champions radical sexual politics, humanising the posing sex worker models she recruited to take part in the shopfront scene — a nod to the redlight district of Amsterdam. Through written interviews which she conducted to accompany each photograph, Julia sought to give agency to her models and inquire into the conditions of the sex industry.
Perhaps most characteristic of Julia’s work is the use of abstract colour and considered lighting. “I like my images to look painterly, so I’ll spend a lot of time working with my sets,” she says. “Before an image gets to post-production, I’ll work to create little pools of light in order to make an image stand out, and that’s all done in the moment. It’s about paying attention to how I want the viewer to respond to the image, and where I want their eye to be drawn.” It’s then, that the photographer will work in post using the tools available in Lightroom, to further highlight those “gestural subtleties” alongside an experienced retoucher.
For Julia, creating that cinematic quality within her images requires generative conversation among her team but it’s also an ambitious balancing of “special effects; smoke machines, mist machines and sometimes rain machines on set,” in order to best tell the story. However, her ability to work on this larger, more complex scale was disrupted drastically by Covid-19. She recounts some of the logistical difficulties that arose in the creation of Looking Out From Within (2020) – a visual diary that catalogued the spectrum of responses from individual households during the peak of the UK’s national lockdown.
Her excursion to the remote Eel Pie Island in West London which was selected as part of My Greatest Shot perfectly encapsulates the aimlessness of lockdown. “‘Day 51’ sums up what we were all grappling with during that time. It was a very difficult time for all of us, But the image I took of Penelope, my model, was actually one of my favourite images,” she says. “I quite liked the colours and the symbiosis between the blue swimming cap, the boat and the water beside her. But the lengths I went to in order to capture this shot were quite hazardous, looking back. I always shoot using a tripod but I remember the difficulty of managing the camera with the tide moving back and forth. In the end, I opted to use a handheld camera, and I hung it over the boat itself. I remember saying to myself ‘I just need one shot,’ and I got it.”
Penelope, Lockdown Day 51. “COVID-19 has been a wake-up call for the world. It is a challenge not to be engulfed by fear but to look ahead in hope for the future. I am very grateful to live on the river, surrounded by nature, wonderful neighbours and doing less rushing about. I am now awake to the beauty of what is right here. It’s definitely a lesson how nothing can be taken for granted and how precious life is.”
Despite these challenges, she has found inventive ways to stay true to her process. To ensure she was working within the limits of lockdown rules, Julia operated by mail correspondence (sending volunteers costumes days in advance by mail), she purchased her own lighting, and asked each homeowner to position the lights around their rooms in order to achieve her signature look and create the “ambience [she] was after.” Her equipment, which she ordinarily might use on shoots had to be scaled back considerably.
“All in all, it was a really refreshing experience. It brought me back to when I first started out in photography,” she says. “When I would street cast people, and back to when I didn’t necessarily have the budget to work with models or actors. I would definitely go back to that again. It certainly made me approach my photography in a completely different way.” Indeed, the experiences gleaned from shooting Looking Out From Within has instilled the photographer with greater confidence in her abilities working at any scale.
Serena and Chloe, Lockdown Day 16. “My main priority is keeping myself and everyone around me safe. Staying indoors is a small sacrifice to make for the safety of others, so my main aim is to find new ways of using this time positively and taking care of my mental health.”
Zewdi, Yabsra and Ehiopia, Lock Down Day 57. “COVID- 19 has affected me in many ways that I can’t clearly explain, but I am sure everyone is feeling similarly as we are all in it. There’s nothing similar that we have experienced in our lifetime. . I am a bit worried about the children’s education because we are not doing anything near what they would have been doing at their school with their teachers.”
Julia Fullerton-Batten appears in the portrait photography episode of My Greatest Shot available to watch on Sky Arts and Sky on Demand from November
Looking Out From Within is available to pre-order here.