By Stephanie Drax
Julia Fullerton-Batten is as comfortable breathing new life into Old Master paintings as she is shining a spotlight on Britain’s sex trade. As a globally acclaimed fine-art photographer, her macro-scale work scrutinises human beings in micro-detail, and always through the prism of wildly diverse themes. The results are both dreamy and disarming, and completely cinematic.
"When I started in the business, I worked as an assistant for several photographers, including for Mario Testino on Vogue. But after five years lifting and shifting as an assistant, I was craving my own commissions.” In 1998, Julia entered the UK Association of Photographers award for assistants, and won.
Advertising campaigns for the likes of Lavazza, Sony, BMW, and Campari (with Eva Green) followed, but her own creative ideas were bubbling. Julia's emotionally tumultuous teenage years became the inspiration for her first narrative, ‘Teenage Stories’ (2005), a series of photos in which adolescent girls are juxtaposed against a model village as if they've ‘outgrown’ their surroundings.
The series is quirky, clever and dramatic - a unique style she's become famous for - and it instantly won an HSBC award. It was exhibited in five countries, and became Julia’s key to the art world.
The scale of Julia’s projects has mushroomed since that model village - "more lights, more special effects, more smoke!!" she says. Her atmospheric images are like movie stills and have a similar production scope to cinema: “It starts with the seed of a story, followed by up to a year of research on the theme,” says Julia, “Then I’ll find a location, actors, costumes, props for the era, a creative team of assistants and stylists, and tons of lighting.”
Julia uses a Hasselblad H6d 100c – the best digital camera on the market – and shoots it tethered to an EIZO monitor so that she can pore over the pixels: “Every part of the image tells a story and every detail is important. I place everything in the scene meticulously.”
After her initial autobiographical work, an interest in social issues sparked her next phase. ‘Unadorned’ (2012) is a series of large contemporary nudes of that comment on our obsession with body weight: "To be fashionable today requires women to be ultra-think to look 'good'. In the 18th century, a fuller figure was the epitome of female beauty."
‘Feral Children’ (2015) is a disturbing series that depicts historical cases of children who have been lost or abandoned. "That subject was especially hard to research," admits Julia, who has two small boys and lives in London. "I was inspired when I read an autobiography by Marina Chapman called The Girl with No Name. Marina was kidnapped in Colombia when she was 5 years old, drugged and left in the jungle for 3 years. She copied the behaviour of Capuchin monkeys and survived that way. By the time she was found she was hardly human anymore."
In ‘The Act’ (2016) Julia explores the UK sex trade in a series exhibiting pole dancers, porn stars and slaves in highly stylised and seductive scenes. “I wanted to approach ‘The Act’ from a woman’s point of view,” Julia explains, “using sets according to their lives and career. I interviewed women who voluntarily engage in the sex industry, among them porn and webcam stars, escorts, striptease and lap dancers. All of them stated they were happy with their chosen profession."
Julia’s current project, ‘Old Father Thames’ is her most ambitious to date. It charts historical narratives from the banks of the River Thames, and includes an homage to Sir John Everett Millais' painting Ophelia in the Tate Gallery, London. A behind-the-scenes video shows how the team captures the perfect shot.
Her most recent work on the Old Father Thames theme is ‘Frost Fair 1814’, a re-enactment of a party on the river frozen solid. “We had 95 people on set for this photograph,” says Julia, “I used fake snow and ice, and smoke machines to create the misty London of the Old Masters.”
In 1814, an African elephant was actually led across the frozen Thames to Blackfriars Bridge. Julia - committed as ever to realism - tried to hire a live elephant for the shoot: “People are surprised to hear this,” she laughs, “but it’s only the second time in my career I’ve ended up using CGI!”