PRINT May 2016

Mark Borthwick

Mark Borthwick, photograph for Bless, 2000.

IN THE 1990s, I worked in Paris with the designers [Hussein] Chalayan and [Martin] Margiela, people who were explicitly shying away from photographic documentation and from “personality” or “celebrity”—and from the idea of perfection of any kind. Doing a story about Bless or Margiela or Susan Cianciolo was exciting because 90 percent of people didn’t even know who they were. That didn’t exist anywhere else.

I shared that sensibility, and it was a truly liberating idea: Nobody knows who you are, which encourages you to really listen to the self. Ironically, that kind of individual voice is usually used to feed or create a trend. But I was interested in the moment before a trend took shape.

When I first arrived in Paris in the mid-’80s, I was a makeup artist. I was doing a lot of DJing and clubbing, a lot of going out and being really mischievous, and then I tried to find a way out of that. All of a sudden, someone lent me a camera and I started taking pictures. Then my wife, Maria [Cornejo], gave me a 35-mm Leica, and I’ve only ever used that camera since.

In those days I set up a darkroom in our apartment, which was full of light, so I had to black out the windows. At night, instead of going out, I’d start printing. Or friends—I had a lot of friends from the fashion industry through work—would just come through and stay with us, and we would stay up all night printing and talking about the images; eventually they encouraged me to work with them on fashion photography. None of it was intentional. That’s the way I’ve lived life, in a way: doing a lot of things really quietly without specifically trying to recognize what I was doing—trying to let it remain a question without trying to create a specific answer. To relinquish control. That’s why I have a hard time thinking about the perfection of the digital aesthetic, because to me it’s the mistakes—the transparency of the process—that create a reason for the image to exist.

When I began working on commercial shoots, a few important people inspired me and gave me incredible opportunities. But then there was a moment when I started hearing, “You can’t do this. You can’t do that.” Once, the editor of Italian Vogue, Franca Sozzani, asked me to shoot a special feature for Armani. I realized that all the working women were wearing a uniform, and it was Armani. This was the early ’90s: The little Armani suit—the power suit—had infiltrated the workplace.

I had seen so many women in these suits come with their lunch bags to Central Park, and it was inspiring to watch them talk, eat, relax—so I thought it would be really funny to go to the park and have lunch with a bunch of women, have them sit around, chat, maybe even do yoga, and take photographs of them. I proposed the idea, and Franca said, “There is just no fucking way you can do that. Because that woman, that working woman, is the one woman that Armani despises more than anybody.”

So I didn’t do the shoot. That’s the crazy thing about who is really wearing the clothes: It’s not always who the brand wants it to be.

The way I saw things was not the way others saw them. If someone told me to change something or instructed me to do things a certain way, I didn’t really listen. At some point, a voice comes along and says, “You know what? We can make you into a successful fashion photographer.” I just said, “No. No. No.”

I only worked for four or five years with Italian Vogue and the bigger magazines. Then I stopped doing commercial jobs, for the most part. I realized pretty quickly that there is a whole social lifestyle that comes with it that I found really boring. It just didn’t interest me. Fashion was just a question. I never wanted it to be an answer.

I realized, too, that it was the ordinary that I was interested in, perhaps as a reaction to the superficiality of what was being sold as a dream of the past—something that was no longer real, had no true feeling, and certainly wasn’t contemporary to me.

What excited me most was taking time with my family and friends: That’s the way I started to learn how to become a photographer. The medium of photography, for me, has always been about spending time with people, creating an environment that would tell its own story.

Mark Borthwick, Untitled, 1997, Cibachrome, dimensions variable.

I DO MOST OF MY SHOOTING here at home in New York, or on the street just outside our home or wherever I am. I never worked much with stylists or with makeup or hair crews. Well, when I was younger, there were several stylists who were really important to the way that I was working, but I think our relationship was a lot closer to a friendship; we had similar ways of seeing things: Desirée [Heiss] and Ines [Kaag] from Bless and Bernadette [Van-Huy] and Bernadette Corporation . . . and before that, when I worked with i-D, there was a young woman named Jane How. She was amazing.

After getting away from the big glossies, I started working with Purple. Elein [Fleiss, the cofounder] was instrumental in creating that opportunity, because the original stories for Purple were always with a single photographer and a single designer, overturning the idea that a fashion story had to be ten pages of ten different designers, showcasing as much product as possible. Elein would say, “Mark, you’re working with Margiela this season. Someone else is working with Helmut [Lang], and someone else is working with Dries Van Noten.” It was very different in those days. I’d meet someone in the street or in a restaurant and say, “Meet me at the office,” and then we’d take pictures for half an hour and that was it.

The small group of young photographers and designers who worked with Purple have all evolved in their own ways since then and followed different career paths, but at the time, it was very much about collaborating. I’ve always been drawn to collaboration, because I came out of photographing choreography, where the relationship between the performers and the composer is at the center of everything. And I’ve always loved playing music, because you’re not trying. There is a big difference between knowing what you’re doing and three people just open-tuning their guitars and listening to the vibrations. Something happens that’s just evolving and coming alive of its own volition. It’s not controlled.

Soon after, I began playing with the ability of photography to capture unconscious or unintentional images. You start looking at the ground and then you start realizing that everything around you can be a picture. It’s an empty bottle. It’s a torn-up newspaper. Or it’s the wind blowing this way or that and then, all of a sudden, you get these surprise pictures on a roll of film, and you think, “I didn’t take that.” The images appear completely out of nowhere. It’s a gentle reminder that everything you love to look at, you’re able to capture in some intangible way.

When my daughter, Bibi, was born, I was taking photos and I accidentally let light leak into the camera, onto the film. I wasn’t sure what had happened, but then I started fooling around with it and using the light leaks to create flares and different chance elements. And lately, I’ve been exposing the film directly to candlelight—you get the most incredible, strange, saturated red.

I shoot everything on slide film. At first, I fell in love with Kodachrome: You could see it as a positive. You could hold it up and let the light in. I found negative film complicated, because the image was somehow too versatile: My lab would always have to provide a few different prints of each image—to try out different shades, one more magenta than the other, etc. And I was searching for what replicated what I had seen. But I found it on slide film and this simplified the way I worked, teaching me about the delicacies of light itself. On slide film, everything was just immediately there. And if something was altered, it was a mistake. I was intentionally making mistakes because I didn’t know what I was doing. I still don’t know what I’m doing. I’m seeing myself repeat things that I did twenty or twenty-five years ago without even noticing it while I’m doing it. It’s great.

Sadly, they stopped making Kodachrome a while ago and then I switched to Kodak Ektachrome 100, which I regret to say passed away about two years ago. I only have a handful of it left that I keep for my personal work. I’ve generally moved to [Kodak] Portra—negative color film—which is okay for now. It’s the best I’ve got. Actually, it’s interesting: These discontinuations are forcing me to change my ways of working. I often make Polaroids of my slides with a duplicator, and yet I’m terribly sad to say that Fuji FP-100C film has just been discontinued, too. I have loved making Polaroids, finding its immediacy, like that of slides, a pleasure.

I only use film because digital is impossible. It’s too perfect. It’s too clear. I can’t see things that way. A lot of friends have switched, and they’re showing me all these computer programs that can simulate film. But the idea that you have to take a perfect image and put it through this garbage disposal in the computer and add grain to it, take grain away—it’s not for me. You can turn a digital image into a Kodachrome image but it’s not the same.

The labor that’s going into the image—that’s not even tangible. It’s just a file and you’re spending ten grand retouching something that doesn’t even exist. It doesn’t make any sense. For many commercial campaigns now, they want you to factor retouching into the budget. And I’ll say, “We don’t retouch them,” but they don’t believe it. It’s crazy, the level of retouching they want. It’s not just the face. It’s the folds of the clothes; looking at other images and saying, “The dress looks better here. Can we take this part of the dress and put it in that other image?”

We have friends who are really great commercial photographers and they laugh at the few of us who still use film; they think it’s the most complicated way to work. They go up to my studio and they see the mess and the chaos. I can’t even say to them, “But wait. You’re making files and passing them onto this person who is going to spend six to eight hours retouching it, moving bits, doing all of this kind of stuff.”

And there are people who are looking for a source of perfection, looking to perfect an image, who work to perfect the photograph. I just happen to be the extreme opposite; for me, images have become way too sharp and way too clear; they’ve lost a sense of depth of field. I think the image itself becomes a way to provide an answer, to tell you what to buy. The images have become tangible—in the sense that the image is saturated by product, so it’s saturated by a message, an answer. In reality, though, I don’t believe that anything is fully tangible, or can be captured in that way, converted into a simple answer.

Mark Borthwick, photograph for Balenciaga advertising campaign, pre-fall 2016.

I’VE ONLY DONE one commercial campaign at a time, for a long time. For the past eight years I’ve been working with the sunglasses company Mykita. Before that I worked with the French brand Vanessa Bruno. I’ve collaborated with just three or four brands in the past twenty-five years, really loyal clients that stay with you between five and eight years. You work a few weeks a year and it pays for your mortgage. And then you have all this beautiful time for other things.

Working with those clients is a collaboration. But I also collaborate in my art. About fifteen years ago, I did a series of shows in Japan [at Poetry of Sex gallery] where I would sleep in the gallery for two or three weeks and then cook every day and play music, and let other people come in and perform, or read, just let things happen. That was always the most inspiring work: letting other people make art and leave art around the gallery.

I don’t necessarily need my personal work to have an audience, in the way that commercial work might. It might have something to do with the fact that I’m not thinking about making art to make a living or to sell it. I’ve never been very good at that. Everyone is saying, “For fuck’s sake. Wake up. Just show the photography. Sell the photography.” But I don’t know how to do that.

I’ve been devoting most of my time to making books. They can create a kind of archive, because they’re often telling stories that continue in my work over two or three decades. At the moment, I’m writing a book to make a film. Last year, I began working on a new book with fake advertising campaigns and fake editorials. I just took shots of pavement and then superimposed different fictional brands and logos on them. It was something of a follow-up to a series of photographs I took and self-published about fifteen years ago, which featured similar images, but with actual brands. It also echoes another book I made, Not in Fashion, from 2009. I’ve been fascinated with the vehicle of advertising for a long time.

Vanessa Bruno was really interesting because she was quite commercial, on one hand, but on the other, she wanted the imagery to be the extreme opposite—she was more interested in creating imagery that was free of the clothing, that was more generally about a lifestyle. We were trying to create an identity for a brand that wasn’t attached to the trend of the season or to the trends that even she herself was creating. I think she was smart enough to realize that it wasn’t about creating a groundbreaking bunch of clothes each season that was going to change everything.

The conversation about branding would completely change if you took away the advertorial genre. And everyone is talking about the outmodedness of the fashion / runway show / advertising cycle right now. Because it would make so much more sense if the shows that are on now, in February, were the summer shows instead of the winter shows. And then instead of giving the buyers the choice of what they buy from the showroom to sell months later, the designer dictates it. You produce a hundred of each piece, say, and when they’re gone, they’re gone—sold out. Then you move onto the pre-fall and the cruise collections. And then you’ve cut out the time in between the runway show and the clothes being available in stores—an interim time that is the time of advertising. Because the conventional timing of the cycle itself right now is a result of that gap for advertising. And as we all know, in fashion, the editorial is dictated by the advertising. You buy a page. We give you editorials.

In this new scenario, you don’t eradicate the COSs and the H&Ms and all of those street brands, but you don’t give them time to copy the designs, because the original designers start selling immediately. And this model is actually no different from the philosophy of a brand like Supreme, who was way ahead of it all. Because they’re launching a limited edition every two weeks, every month, and they have a queue of two hundred kids who are going to wait in line and sleep outside no matter what, at every single store worldwide, for those pieces. When those pieces are gone, they’re selling for three times the price on eBay the next day. That makes it exciting.

Mark Borthwick, Untitled, 2006, ink-jet print, dimensions variable. From the series “Birds Sets Suns,” 2006.


I’ve actually just accepted an opportunity that raises exactly this question. I’ve been invited to work with Balenciaga, whose new designer, Demna Gvasalia, has been thinking along similar lines. But it’s not just about shooting an ad campaign. We’d like to question the entirety of what advertising is. We started shooting the first collection, the pre-fall, in December in Paris. And now we’ll be working with the question of how these images get presented.

No advertising: That’s ideally what I would do. I truly believe that advertising is the most irresponsible thing. Why not use that money to do something really sensible? Or if you do have to create ads—it could be nothing. If it’s for perfume, which is the real moneymaker for most of the brands, it could just be images of the water or of the sky or, for that matter, of anything. Now, do we need to credit the brand on that? No. We don’t. If we can create an image that people recognize as the brand, then you don’t even need to write anything on it. Could that be a first step toward the end of advertising as such?

Every fashion ad today has everything. It’s all saturated, without feeling. So what if we take it all away? Instead of creating the answer, you’re creating a question. Because for corporations now, the first question is: What do you think about advertising? What and how should we advertise? I’m interested in getting away from that and actually trying to funnel those enormous budgets into working with people that you really believe in. That’s just as interesting as doing zines or newspapers that come out once a month or opening up guerrilla stores, pop-ups, or shows to cater to or form some new niche or audience—creating cultures, not only appropriating from them. Who is the Balenciaga woman? She doesn’t exist.

—As told to Isabel Flower and Michelle Kuo

Mark Borthwick is an artist based in New York; he recently shot the 2016 advertising campaign for Balenciaga.