Having featured twice in Aesthetica, fine art photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten returns with Old Father Thames, a series inspired by the river and its historical significance. Steeped in theatrical suspense and offering cinematic qualities, the body of work retells a variety of intriguing narratives.
A: What drew you to the River Thames as a subject, and what is its cultural, historic and narrative significance?
JFB: My family regularly take walks along the River Thames and enjoys the activities taking place. It’s fascinating how much its appearance continuously changes with the weather and season. The river is tidal with the water level rising and falling twice a day by up to 20 feet.
In the summer of 2016, we decided to put on our Wellington boots and walk along the foreshore of the river at low tide, much as the Mudlarkers did in Dickensian times. I stood there alone for a few minutes, enchanted with everything around me and felt how incredible the history of the Thames is. I thought to photograph people walking on the shore at low tide. But then came the questions – how can I shoot them in my style? I couldn’t say to someone “can you come back in an hour or so when I’ve set up my lighting?” I realised that I wanted the shoots to have more content, and that’s how the idea for Old Father Thames came about.
Although it’s not the longest river in the British Isles, its significance to world history is immense. From a small trickle in the Cotswold Hills it flows eastwards through the south of England, passing through the centre of London and – after a journey of 364 km – enters the North Sea via the Thames Estuary. The Thames enabled London to become a deep-water port in pre-Roman times, and has become a major communication and trade route between Britain and the rest of the world. The river has truly defined the character and prosperity of London for over well over 2,000 years, and has supported its importance on the world stage.
My fascination with the Thames is now entwined with the history of London. Stories and photographic essays on and about London are unending, but I’ve found that the Thames is also chequered with many interesting individual stories. They encompass birth, baptism, death, suicide, messages in a bottle, quaint ancient boats and other melodramatic episodes. I’ve set out to recreate these scenes as if I’d seen them with my own eyes. I started the project over 2 years ago and it might become a never-ending project. It seems to be a veritable love affair with a truly remarkable river.
A: The images are deeply cinematic yet also tie into the history of art. How do your works explore both visual languages of film and painting?
JFB: I have continuously honed my style of photography ever since I became a professional nearly 20 years ago. The development of my lighting techniques is what I classify as cinematic. During this progression I have frequently visited art galleries to study the techniques used by artists in the creation of their paintings. I shoot an image as though it is a still extracted from a film. Although my models’ faces cannot be described as expressionless, they do not smile or laugh – something characteristic of many paintings featuring a motionless sitter. I have reproduced two paintings by Pre-Raphaelite artists in this body of work, and thus my modern cinematic style of photography has a fairly strong affiliation with artists’ paintings.
I am a keen film watcher and take a lot of inspiration from their content. Strangely though, I am very conscious that I closely observe and analyse individual scenes – settings, lighting, etc – which I use when shooting my still images. Sometimes, after having watched an entire film, I’m less aware of the story than I am of those moments.
A: What are your personal highlights from Old Father Thames?
JFB: As with my Feral Children project – where I researched the children in each image and became quite emotionally engaged with their individual stories – I grew to identify with the narratives in Old Father Thames. Take briefly the instance of the 18th Century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft who attempted suicide twice, once jumping off Putney Bridge into the Thames – both times she was unsuccessful – but then died giving birth, aged 38.
Ophelia offers multiple episodes of interest, both tragic and satisfying. The character is well known from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. He portrays her as a noblewoman who fell in love with Hamlet, but her love for him was not returned. In John Everett Millais painting Ophelia she is shown floating in a river, holding a posy of flowers with a peaceful, beatific look on her face. She had wandered along the river bank picking flowers, climbed a tree and fallen into the river. The air trapped in her voluminous clothing kept her afloat, but then as they saturated, she sank and drowned. It was probably suicide.
I managed to find the exact spot on the Thames tributary, the Hogsmill River in Ewell, where Millais painted the first stage of his painting in 1851. I decided to shoot the scene in its entirety with my model lying in the river, flowers clasped in her hand. I was determined to make my image as authentic as possible to Millais’ painting. I ensured that my model had similar features, hair and skin colouring to those of Lizzie Siddal and dressed her in an almost identical antique dress with matching flowers.
A: How does this series tie in with – or differ from – previous bodies of work, such as those previously published in Aesthetica?
JFB: The major difference is that previous projects were the story I wanted to tell and each image was a chapter of that story, whereas in Old Father Thames each image is a story in its own right, making up an omnibus edition of stories about the River Thames.
A: Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
JFB: I am still very much tied up with this project but with a myriad of ideas buzzing around in my head for future projects…
Find out more about the photographer here.
1. All images courtesy of the artist.