Tuesday, 23 January 2018

In Conversation With Harry Borden

The grandfather clock dispatches each tick with authority. At the top of each hour, its chimes reverberate in every corner of the extensive Devon farmhouse, bouncing off the framed Cecil Beaton and Tierney Gearon prints, pounding around the en-suite office that stores over 25,000 rolls of film in regimental black binders, skipping over the Sir Alex Ferguson-signed football shirt and ruffling the belly fur of resident golden retriever Sandy who’s lying on her back in the living room. The photographer stirring in the master bedroom is acutely aware of the fickle and finite ticking of time. His time has been successfully deployed during a 25-year career that has made him one of the go-to portrait photographers of a generation. It’s 7am and time for him to get up.

I slide out of the guest bed, which snappers Zed Nelson and his partner Maja Daniels slept in just a few nights before (hoping that I had chosen to sleep on Maja’s side) and join Harry Borden in the kitchen where he is slicing up home-baked bread for marmalade on toast #bakingborden. Dressed casually in an inside-out, made-in-Vietnam, blue-and-white-hooped Gap T-shirt, knackered dark shorts and Croc shoes, he arranges the breakfast condiments on the table as obsessively as he would construct one of his portraits.

As I sit sipping milky tea from a Charles and Diana wedding mug, listening to Borden’s rapid chatter, it’s clear that from the very beginning, Borden likes to win; not only win, but to out skill, out think, out manoeuvre, out earn and out photograph his competitors. He has won World Press Photo awards in 1997 and 1999 for portraits of entrepreneur Richard Branson and singer Björk respectively (a competition he has also judged twice), won the Naylor Prize for Photography for a portrait of a farmer at The National Open Art and has had work selected for the National Portrait Gallery’s annual photographic portrait prize, once for nine consecutive years in a row (in one of those years, three images were selected). The National Portrait Gallery holds more than 100 examples of his work in their photographic collection and there aren’t many magazines that have not yet published his work. Borden’s most satisfying victory is, arguably, over his Jewish-American father. When he declared aspirations to be a photographer, he was told that he didn’t have what it takes. His father had worked as an ad man on Madison Avenue in the 1960s (one of the genuine Mad Men) working with great photographers, so he knew, and advised his son to take a job in a camera shop instead.

Richard Branson ©Harry Borden

I first met Borden in the early noughties at the offices of the Independent Photographers Group (IPG) the agency which represented us both. Borden didn’t frequent The Fox pub next door with myself, Marcus Bleasdale and Tom Stoddart; the clammy hand of mortality wasn’t one Borden was eager to shake too early (when he does get to shake it, he’ll probably challenge it to a thumb war). IPG photographers had to write their jobs down in an annual log book. I often checked how the others were doing: Borden’s list always had the most pages (win). IPG photographers prints were stored on shelves along the wall; Borden’s shelf was by far the longest (win).

Borden hauls over a metal case and lifts the lid on how his career began in London, the city that he left aged six, moving from a posh preparatory school in Kensington to a free-school-dinners comprehensive school in Devon and a childhood dominated by shovelling pig shit on the family farm. Advertising photographer Lester Bookbinder, who was in Devon visiting his father, advised Borden to move to London. He did, arriving in 1989 with an Ordinary National Diploma portfolio from Plymouth College of Art and Design and experience garnered from a brief stint working at a photographic studio in Exeter. His father’s comments galvanised Borden with a fierce desire to succeed. It didn’t take long, securing his first (£25 all-in fee) commission for the NME, a portrait of the Smiths guitarist Craig Gannon, published on 18 March 1989. I know this date is correct as it’s on the laminated, felt-mounted, tear-sheet he hands me from the case. His first NME cover, of Primal Scream singer-songwriter, Bobby Gillespie, also laminated (and I must confess, now a little sticky with marmalade), soon followed.

Young Borden said yes to everything; he said a laminated yes to commissions for Truck magazine; Boardroom magazine and Recruitment Monitor magazine. Older Borden says yes to as many invitations he can to talk at schools, colleges and universities “sending into the world an army of admirers”. If Borden says no, it would open up an opportunity for another photographer to say yes. Borden has nailed his place in portraiture history and confesses a desire for more reportage assignments. The results he shows me from a shoot of actor Tom Hiddleston in Guinea for UNICEF won’t trouble the behemoths of photojournalism but, with a few more opportunities leveraged Borden’s way, they just might. His 288 page book on on Holocaust survivors will be published in Spring 2017 by Octopus and he is making progress with his Single Parent Dads project.


It’s time to pick up his young son, affectionately referred to as Bubba and his first child with his partner, the Panos Agency photographer, Abbie Trayler-Smith, (who is away on assignment in Zambia). Borden slides on a gold-plated pair of prescription Ray Bans, a present to himself in the early 90s while on assignment in the USA, strides past the trampoline dominating the west garden #bouncingborden and does what all proud parents do – enthuses how well their kid is doing and what amazing things they say. Arriving at Bubba’s carer’s garden gate, the junior Johnny Vegas look-a-like bundles over wearing two stickers on his correctly worn red and white hooped T-shirt. I ask what the stickers are for? “One for doing wee, one for doing poo.” Amazing. Climbing in the battered silver Fiat Punto with a missing petrol flap, we nestle among the discarded waterproof clothing, iPod headphones, empty petrol can, empty milk carton, shopping receipts, antacid tablets and a wrapped tampon and swerve on over to visit the oldest of his three children Polly, from his 14-year marriage to Jane, a consummation that also produced Fred, 15, and Oscar, 12. Pretty Polly has had an offer to study BSc (Hons) Psychology at the prestigious Goldsmiths College in London (win), providing she gets the A Level results she needs*. She’s has just got up. Borden shows her a snap on his phone of her and her exotically handsome boyfriend sleeping away another day. We ask if Polly can look after Bubba to allow us time to play a game of tennis, Polly asks if she can be paid for her time.


On a bike ride along the fish-riddled canal #bikingborden that runs east to west along the bottom of Borden’s south-facing garden, he describes meeting his first wife Jane, a free-spirited Gold Coast Australian and talented gymnast (win), in a Bethnal Green block of flats; of investing in his first flat in his early 20s and swiftly climbing the ladder to own several properties across London. As I cycle further away from the 7% proof Aspall Premier Cru Dry Suffolk Cyder I have chilling in his fridge and watch the bouncing head of Bubba in the seat behind Borden get further ahead, I try to think about his work than the stiffening of my calves and the thirst in my throat. I’ve four of Borden’s prints framed in my lounge: musicians Liam Gallagher, Jarvis Cocker, Pete Doherty and his classic shot of Michael Hutchence, dangling a cigarette delicately over a Parisian balcony. I’ve a copy of Borden’s Starwhite book by my bed; 30 portraits of actors, authors, comedians, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, a singer and a chess player. The mainly square portraits vary from flash lit and daylight, close up and full length, colour and black & white, eyes open and eyes closed. The techniques may be different but they work as a style, a deceptively simple way of working that produces non-judgemental results. Borden admits to being quite forceful when shooting his portraits and advises aspiring photographers to “calm the f*** down and own the situation; there are no happy-accidents.” “This is great, isn’t it?” he suggests, slowing down to let me catch up “Make sure you cog down the gears before the steep narrow hill,” he advises (too late) and accelerates away to the top. I get off and push, a dozen middle-aged women about to begin their evening ride pause and witness my shame.



Borden has moved on from the technical tricks that helped make him a name: cross-processing colour reversal film, ring flash and Technical Pan film processed through Rodinal liquid developer (a technique that he claims to have invented) to a more understated style, and we move on to Waitrose (“Such a nice shopping experience”). Borden wanted to be like Brian Griffin (steak in the basket) and reveres photographers Diane Arbus, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon (tomatoes); he raves about comedian Stewart Lee (Gü cheesecake x 2) and the work of Alma Haser: “a true artist” (Australian Shiraz). Online photo-sharing social networking service Instagram, he believes, sorts those who can photograph, from those who can’t (dishwasher tablets).

Before we eat, it’s time for tennis. The court is located in the grounds of neighbours Kevin and Joan. Joan is at home and I observe this fruity, frolicking, sumptuous country lovely for perhaps a little longer than I should. Oof – new balls, please! There’s a virtuousness in how Borden allocates his time, where every second counts and an efficiency in the way he plays tennis, where every ball counts. I watch this confident, naturalised Brit dispatch a range of measured shots across the net. I’m outskilled, out-thought, out-manoeuvred and outplayed. Result: an emphatic Borden WIN.

*she did

A version of this article first appeared in the book - THE DENCH DOZEN: Great Britons of Photography Vol. 1


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