Photo insight with Harry Borden: PJ Harvey
June 23, 2016
Polly Jean Harvey is an alternative rock icon. She has won the Mercury Prize twice, had eight nominations for the Brit Awards, six nominations for the Grammy Awards and was awarded an MBE in 2013 for services to music.
The first time I photographed PJ Harvey was in 1996. At the time she was popular in trendy circles, but wasn’t widely known yet. She was about as cool as you could imagine and I don’t think she’s ever lost that quality.
I was commissioned to do a portrait shoot with Polly by Option, an alternative music magazine of the time. I was a fan of her work, so it was an exciting opportunity.
Back then, I had a flat in London’s Bethnal Green and suggested we use it for the shoot. She turned up dressed completely in black, with green eyeshadow and red lipstick that accentuated her features.
We spent a few hours taking the pictures, the strongest of which is shown above. I chose the green background to match her eyeshadow and complement her lipstick, and set up the backdrop in the hallway. I used natural light from a window, and set it up so that most of the light fell on her face while illuminating only a small part of the backdrop.
I shot this image on my Hasselblad CM with an 80mm lens. At that time, I liked a cross-processed look and this one was taken on Kodak Ektachrome Professional ISO 100 transparency film, and processed in C-41 (print film) chemicals. This produced a more contrasty image with little or no shadow detail. It was one of those occasions when cross-processing augmented the subject without being obvious.
Afterwards, when a limo came to collect Polly and take her back to where she was staying in Baker Street, I asked if I could go with her. There, we found a little supermarket and I took some pictures of her as an anonymous customer.
The whole shoot was great because of the combination of an incredibly photogenic subject with amazing clothes and make-up. It was one of those portrait sessions which, when you get the film back from the processing lab, you’re really delighted with.
On a personal note, at the time of the shoot my wife and I were deciding on a name for our unborn child. I put the name Polly into the hat and my daughter was named after her. I didn’t see PJ Harvey again until 2012, when I was photographing her for a feature in The Sunday Times Magazine. I was still star-struck and it was nice to be able to tell her my daughter was named after her. She signed a CD: ‘To Polly, From Polly’. However, the rest of the shoot was fraught.
We shot in a London hotel, and there was very little time. I tried to get as much variety in as possible. After some pictures in the room with different backgrounds, I suggested we take a few pictures in the lift along the hallway (see above).
This time, I was shooting with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and a 50mm lens. Again, I only used available light and I liked the resulting low-key, moody images. Converting to black & white suited the images more.
PJ Harvey’s publicist was present and requested Polly have input into which pictures were used. I wouldn’t normally do this, but because I had so much goodwill I reluctantly agreed to set up an online gallery.
Unbeknown to me, Polly didn’t have any modern technology in her house, so the publicist downloaded the pictures, had prints made and sent someone to take them to Polly in Dorset. By the time she had made her choice, the deadline had passed and I had already given the pictures to The Sunday Times Magazine. What was published was not of Polly’s choosing.
As a result, I was given a 45-minute tirade over the phone by the publicist, which was unfair. I liked the pictures, but what happened afterwards left a sour taste. You learn from these experiences.