Old Father Thames: An Interview with Julia Fullerton-Batten
Interview By: Betsabe Morales
Your complex staging looks so perfect. How do you achieve this?
From my start as a photographer, the staging of my sets has been cinematic, much like a still extract from a film. My lighting techniques have followed suit and are now more dramatically cinematic. At the end of the day, photography is about light, colour, emotions revealed in my model’s expressions. For me, it’s primarily about lighting and colour. I can make a drab, mundane setting something incredible lighting it cinematically with a mixture of flash and daylight working with cross-lighting.
What’s the most challenging aspect of staged photography?
The pre-production phase is the most challenging aspect of staged photography, especially when shooting a project of between ten and twenty individual images. I have an idea for a project and work on it until I have decided on the story-line for each image. Once I have crystallized my ideas I find locations, source models, their clothing, props, etc.. I may visit a location several times and interview my models personally. All this is followed by preparing for the day of the shoot, putting together a team of assistants, hiring lighting and the logistics of getting everything to the location. I do this work by myself, but by the time of the shoot I know that everything is as prepared as it possibly can be. The shoot itself is often quite relaxing and the reward for all the effort put in during pre-production.
My Old Father Thames project brought a number of other complications into the equation, foremost that the River Thames is tidal from London down to the sea, and is very busy with river traffic, all of which is governed by the Port of London Authority, from which I have to get a license to shoot on the river or its foreshore each and every day that I shoot an image.
The tide on the Thames occurs twice daily and the water level rises and falls by about 20 feet each time. This restricts the time of the shoot to 4 to 6 hours during which time equipment and props have to be unloaded and set-up, the shoot completed when I have to make sure that everything and everybody is safely on-shore again before the tide returns.
I have accomplished many complicated projects but this one is the most complex. Fortunately, I have a team of assistants most of whom I’ve worked together with for 10 years now.
Do you have any particular interest in history?
I was born in Germany, second child of four. Our mother is German, our father English. When I was two, we emigrated to the USA where we spent seven happy years in Reading PA, just north of Philadelphia. We lived in a town close to some of the most historical battles in American history and Lancaster County, home of the Amish. We celebrated the Bi-Centennial there in 1976 and regularly visited Hopewell Village, which had a blast furnace that was used to cast cannon barrels during the Civil War.
We moved back to Germany when I was 9/10 and lived there until our parents’ divorce in 1986. We four children moved then to the UK, I was sixteen. With this sort of ‘itinerant’ background studying or learning history wasn’t on the cards. We absorbed the history of our surroundings.
This changed when we moved to England and I soon found myself living in Oxford .Not only does the city ooze education, culture and architecture, the River Thames flows through the city (peculiarly, there it is called Isis, upstream and downstream it remains the River Thames).
Whilst living in Oxford I studied photography and for five, long years was a freelance photographic assistant to professional photographers engaged in a wide range of genre. In 2002 I turned professional. Love took me to live in Chiswick, West London, unbelievably again within walking distance of the River Thames. My fascination with the river became boundless and with it an interest in the history, traditions and customs along the entire length of the river. It was inevitable that sooner or later I would engage in expressing this new knowledge through my photography.
Why did you decide to use the River Thames as the idea for your project?
I often go walking along its banks with my husband and our two young boys. One day we went on to the foreshore at low tide wearing our Wellington boots. I stood alone there for a few minutes and felt how incredible the history of the Thames must be. At first, I just thought to photograph people walking on the shore at low tide but then came the questions - how can I shoot them in my style? But I knew I couldn’t say to someone “can you come back in an hour when I’m setting up lights?”.
I started going to seminars where people talked about the history of the Thames. I learned about customs and traditions along the river. I even took up rowing for a few months and got to see the view from the river itself rather than from the side of the river as a pedestrian. I had to give it up though as it required too much commitment and time, which affected somewhat negatively on our home-life and my work.
But soon I found ways to embroil myself in this massive and very rewarding project that I call Old Father Thames, the scope of which now exceeds anything I’ve ever done before in scope . The feedback has been amazing and I’ve been able to sell a print to an enthusiast in Peru.
I have a show coming up in London in 2020 at a new museum called Fotografiska, there’s one in Stockholm and one opening in New York around the same time.
What is your favorite part of the shoot for staged photography?
Dealing with the entire process from idea through extensive pre-production to printing out the final image can be quite exhausting so nothing can beat the conclusion of the process and seeing the 54 x 40 inches printed image and selling a few of them, especially as every fine-art project that I do is self-funded. When I’ve finished an image I get a feeling of great satisfaction and an immense sense of achievement.
A close second favourite part is the day of the shoot. All the hard work, ups-and-downs of the my solo efforts for the preparations are finished, now I’m working together with my loyal team of assistants and the models to complete the job that I’d set out to do many months earlier. I’m relaxed, in command, it’s satisfying and above all fun. I have a good hard-working team, some of whom have been working with me for 10 years now. They know how I set my lighting and how I work. We often work long hours in a day, on some shoots we’ve worked into the early morning despite an early morning start. There are lots of want-to-be photographers and newbie assistants, who join the shoot for the experience. We’re a happy group together, which helps motivate our models to produce their best.
If you were to pick any photo from the old Thames series so far as your favorite, which one would you pick?
Undoubtedly Ophelia. I love the painting by John Everett Millais. It hangs in the Tate Britain in London. He painted Ophelia in two stages, first the background and later inserted Ophelia using a model, Lizzie Sidall. Her life story was equally tragic to that of Shakespeare’s Ophelia. She married another Pre-Raphaelite, Rossetti, but died from an overdose of laudanum, to which she had become addicted after becoming ill during the painting of Ophelia in Millais home. She was only 33 years old. From starting life as a milliner’s assistant, she had become a significant artist in her own right.
What is really special about this image is that I managed to find the exact spot where Millais painted his background. The painting included many flowers, all of which made a highly symbolic contribution to the sense of the painting. They had to be repeated in my photographic interpretation of the painting. It took me a long time to research the names of all the flowers, then source them. Millais painted the background for Ophelia for a year. Whenever he went back to the location, he would paint flowers from a different season. It made it extremely complicated to determine all the flowers that were in the painting and then source them. Occasionally, I had to resort to using artificial ones.
I feel very attached to this one, the stories and tragedies associated with it, as well as the fact that it is a beautiful painting . As a matter of principle, I don’t ever hang my images in my home but, in this instance, I could hang up this image and adore it daily for many reasons. Better still though, the original painting!
What sparked your interest in photography?
My father was always an enthusiastic amateur photographer. He had his own makeshift darkroom and I always loved to look at the prints that he had left washing in the bath-tub and we had to remove in order to have our evening bath. Seeing his work, either as prints or slide shows left an impression. I found it unbelievable, bizarre and very exciting. I borrowed his Minolta camera and started taking my own pictures. I was hooked. From a very young age, I decided all I wanted to be was a professional photographer, being an amateur would never have been enough for me!
It’s obvious that a lot of attention to detail is put into your work, do you apply this dedication to detail in your everyday life?
Yes, I’m a little bit of a tidy freak at home. The first thing I do when I wake up, before anything else is to make the beds and empty the dishwasher from the overnight wash. Everything in the house has a place and it has to be returned there. I always shower and get dressed before I sit down for breakfast. Oh yes, I will also have switched on the computer and checked if I have any important mail. I definitely have specific ways I like things done – and it drives my menfolk (husband and two energetic boys) crazy.
As far as my daily work is concerned, I strongly believe in the maxim not to leave matters hanging. I will try to get them completed as quickly as possible. Some photographers are really uptight about their equipment and need it to be cleaned to death before putting it away. I’m a little more relaxed about it and give mine a brief wipe down after checking it over and every item does have its place in my storage area, order and tidiness there too.
You’ve done a couple of commercial ad videos, do you see yourself branching out into the world of film/documentary anytime soon?
Like many other photographers, I think we may have to; we need to be able to do a lot of various other things as photographers than take still images. For example, recently I have taken up being a judge and a speaker at international meetings. I enjoyed filming the commercial videos, but I just love taking still images. When I watch a film I tend to view it as a split second clip or a moment…..
The preparations for my shoots are very complex in detail and work-load. Sometimes, I think ‘wow!’ This whole process for taking one still image, I could have filmed an entire movie “. In fact, much of my preparation for my still images is what I’d do if I were shooting a film, all I’d need to do would be to use a film camera instead of my Hasselblad. Over the past couple of years, I’ve made one tiny step and started hiring people to film ‘behind the scenes’ on my shoots…. Maybe if somebody offered me the opportunity to direct or film an amazing movie, I’d jump at it. We’ll see what the future brings.
You have successfully managed to take us back in time to one the most significant rivers in the UK, what’s next?
Old Father Thames has absorbed my attention for over 2 years now, and there are still many more ‘stories’ to photograph. It could become a life’s work. But I still have so many other ideas buzzing around in my head, that I feel that I should take a break from it and shoot something different.