10 Questions With…
Julia Fullerton-Batten

Cinematic lighting, mysterious locations and enigmatic characters. These are the hallmarks of Aesthetica Art Prize finalist Julia Fullerton-Batten’s (b. 1970) pictures, which recreate historical events and tell forgotten stories – from 19th century London to present-day France. Now, as IPFO Haus Der Fotografie, Olten, hosts Fullerton-Batten’s biggest exhibition to date, Aesthetica catches up with the artist about her influences and career highlights. Plus, what to expect from IPFO’s landmark show, Interpretations.

A: Tell us about how you got into working behind the lens – where did it all begin?
JFB: I developed a passionate interest in photography at a young age. My father gave me his Minolta semi-automatic SLR when I was about 13, which meant I could fulfil my early dreams. After secondary school, I studied photography and went on to work as an assistant for five years. Then I got my first commercial assignment, a large shoot in Australia, which really kickstarted my career. 

A: What’s the focus or message behind your latest exhibition at IPFO?
I have exhibited my work countless times around the world, but this will be my biggest exhibition so far. Over 50 images will be shown from seven projects, displayed over three floors. In Unadorned (2012), I position curvaceous bodies, as inspired by 15th to 17th century Old Master paintings, in contrast with the ultra-thin figure that has been favoured in the west since the 1960s. Then, in Feral Children (2015), I reprise the documented cases of fifteen feral children who, for various reasons, grew up with little or no experience of human care, behaviour or language – getting lost and living with wild animals.

Old Father Thames (2018 – current) is my largest project so far. It encompasses authentic reproductions of little-known historical events, customs and traditions that have taken place, and in some instances still do, along the entire length of the River Thames as it flows through the south of England. An example is 1814 Frost Fair (2018), my award-winning short film that illustrates the few days in 1814 when the River Thames froze over completely for the very last time. Londoners took the opportunity to flood onto the ice to enjoy the experience and the entertainment. 

Another body of work is Contortion (2021); it illustrates a physical art form dating back to antiquity. It’s a photographic display of youthful contortionists, revealing elegance and gracefulness as they manipulate their highly trained bodies into dramatic serpentine positions. Then there’s Looking out from Within (2020), in which 35 intimate images portray the lockdown in West London during the the Covid-19 pandemic that hit the world in 2020. Most recent is Photographie mon amour (2022). I was invited to participate in a residency in Metz, France, to capture the essence of the 3000-year old history of that beautiful city.  

A: What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
My career as a fine art photographer spans more than 20 years. There have been a number of significant moments, including winning a prestigious HSBC award which helped me enter the art world. It introduced my project Teenage Stories to galleries in Europe and the USA and helped me publish my first book. Another highlight is when I won a commission from the National Portrait Gallery, London, to photograph sixteen prominent people at that time engaged in the National Health Service. This resulted in a solo exhibition of the portraits, displayed for six months, and a grand opening night at the Gallery. The pictures are now held in the permanent collection there. I’ve been interviewed by BBC for my project Old Father Thames, and also about the Houses of Parliament project 209 Women (2018), which celebrated the anniversary of the first female MP. My image of Seema Kennedy, then Private Secretary to Theresa May, was acquired by the Houses of Parliament. I later spoke to Sky TV about Looking out from Within, which has won a huge number of awards and is now an equally successful book, selling worldwide. 

A: Do you have a “signature” technique or approach? What is it?
JFB: Many observers state that they can instantly and instinctively identify my images. In a nutshell, I am first and foremost a visual storyteller. I use settings, costume, extreme lighting and a painterly approach to provide authentic representations of historical events and controversial social commentaries.

A: If you could do any other job, or be an expert in any other field, what would it be?
I would love to have been a painter. I didn’t have the talent, so I took up photography as the next best option. The two art forms are loosely linked, in that you start off with a blank canvas and fill it in with art.

A: Who are your favourite artists working right now?
I have long admired Jeff Wall. Every picture he creates is deliberate, contextual and bursting with narrative. Another stand-out name is Stan Douglas, whose images are inspired by historical, social and political events. I particularly like his project on the history of the original Penn Station in New York before it was modernised. It was considered to be an architectural masterpiece, so its demolition in the 1960s caused an uproar both nationally and internationally.

A: Is there anything you hope audiences take away from the show?
I’d like them to depart with a feeling of curiosity, and an awareness of the meaning behind it.

A: What are you working on right now? Anything for us to look forward to?
I am continuing my work on my Old Father Thames project, for which I have some very interesting images in an early stage of development – including some from medieval times. I’m very much enjoying the research stage. I may also start work on a book comprising my pictures to date.

Julia Fullerton-Batten: Interpretations runs until 4 February | ipfo.ch

Image Credits:
1. Julia Fullerton-Batten, Flexible Roxy 1. From Contortion (2021).
2. Julia Fullerton-Batten, Penelope – Lockdown Day 51 (2020).
3. Julia Fullerton-Batten, Flexible Roxy 2. From Contortion (2021).
4. Julia Fullerton-Batten, Alice – Lockdown Day 76 (2020).
5. Julia Fullerton-Batten, Lara. From Contortion (2021).