Not So Still Life
Mark Borthwick infuses life, relationships, and love into his photography
Story by Ken Miller / Photography by Stefan Ruiz
With a country house in upstate New York, a lovely 19th century townhouse in Brooklyn and a remarkably charming and attractive family shuttling between the two, Mark Borthwick’s personal life would seem to be lit with the same sunny glow that suffuses so many of his photos. These photos have a dreamy romance to them that is both ruggedly earthy and enchantingly unreal — sort of like the charmed life the photographer leads. This same mismatched blending of qualities carries over into the pages of his new book of fashion photography, Mark Borthwick “not In fashion” published this spring by Rizzoli International. In the book, Borthwick’s hyperactive attention to detail seems to leap from page to page, scattering a bewildering blending of images and text that defies standard conceptions of what a fashion book should look like.
Stepping into Borthwick’s house feels like stepping into the book’s frenetic world. The photographer’s two children go tearing up and down the stairs in incandescent bursts of energy. The back wall of the building has been replaced with floor-to-ceiling sheets of glass, filling the rooms with shimmering light. The walls are covered with pasted-up pictures, and a guitar and chimes sit at the center of the living room floor. Most appealing of all is the smell of delicious food wafting up from the ground floor kitchen — Borthwick is a terrific cook and an almost overly generous host. Dinners tend to be regular social occasions, guests sprawled contentedly throughout the house and wandering into his garden outside. The vibe at these dinners is, as they say, “continental,” with a rural bohemian edge. Initial conversations may be about work, but that won’t last throughout the evening — if things get too serious, the host is sure to pick up his guitar and set off on a Marc Bolan-esque musical ramble. There is no real boundary between the various components of his life, the whole thing a patchwork quilt of haphazardly arranged social connections.
The British-born Borthwick first made a name for himself while shooting for European fashion magazines in the 1990s, his blown-out minimalist photos exhibiting a cool that is very much at odds with his current aura of pleasantly warm whimsy. Before he was even known as a photographer, Borthwick was already a presence on the fashion scene, having fled England in the ‘80s to work as a club promoter in Paris. In presenting his older photos in the Rizzoli book, Borthwick at times seems to be battling this prior incarnation, asserting the dominance of his more eclectic current output over that earlier, sharper-edged ambition. But Borthwick’s photos had a simplicity and directness to them that even at the time seemed to be very much at odds with the arch artifice of most fashion imagery. Even when he shot models, he shot them as people, not objects. He was just as likely to shoot a girl pulling on a dress, rather than posing, because he has always had an intuitive understanding that true attraction lies in earthiness, not artifice.
Perhaps it was inevitable then that he drifted slowly away from fashion, developing creative relationships with musicians who became the subjects for some of his photos — and in the case of Chan Marshall, a music video that unfolds so slowly that it almost feels like a photo, an incredibly extended shot of the singer performing one of her songs while sitting alone in a field. For Borthwick, it’s of the utmost importance to live with an image and to let it reveal its true qualities over time. His career can be seen in much the same way, something he has settled into and allowed to take shape organically, driven more by relationships and personal interactions than catalogue seasons. If that means he’s not shooting editorial at any given time, so be it. That just leaves more hours in the day for him to make music. Though he’s peripatetic, he also seems to be in the process of continually settling in.
Chatting on a recent afternoon, he is borderline frantic. It’s fashion week, and rather than attending shows (with the exception of supporting his wife, Chilean designer Maria Cornejo), he is working to complete the catalogue for an exhibition in Paris. As part of his perpetual unpacking process, he has begun to issue books at a rapidly increasing pace. (Though “don’t tell my publishers,” he cheekily admonishes.) “Too much, too much,” he laments, but you know that isn’t really true. “I’ve got a basement full of photos and magazines,” he says. “Someone told me they saw one of my old books in a store, selling for a lot of money . . . but I can’t give them away fast enough.” Stopping movement would mean settling in, which just isn’t part of Borthwick’s nature — he’s a man who goes to the countryside so that he can frolic in the fields, not sit on his porch. As much as he sighs about having too much to do, it’s still obvious that he wants to dig his hands into his work, muck it up, and make it messy and organic. Which means that nothing will ever be fully completed, no matter how much he talks about needing a break.
When he comes back to New York, there will surely be another dinner party, a trip upstate, a jam session, a photo project with friends. His engagement with his work is both playful and total — midway through a shoot, he often deliberately pops the back of his camera open, exposing the film to light. That quick flash risks destroying all of his work for the day, but it also creates the characteristic bursts of color that make his images so distinctive. To Borthwick, the risk is clearly worth it. He wants to let the images out, let them interact with the world and become a part of it while letting the light that surrounds him physically enter the frame.