Polly Penrose - “It feels like I’m hammering my body into the landscape”

London-based photographer Polly Penrose spent seven years taking pictures of her naked body;

“It feels like I’m hammering my body into the landscape”

She celebrates the women’s strength with a touch of humour. Polly takes us on a colourful journey of nudity and sensation. They are all taken with self-timer and she tells me how it all felt like a secret performance only she and the room was witnessing.

NJ - When did you realise you had potential to become an established photographer?

PP - I started working as a [fashion] assistant but I found it frustrating, as I felt they never took the photographs that I would take. So I stopped styling and went for a job with Tim Walker – [he's] one of the biggest photographers in the world. Being surrounded by all the inspiring people Tim is surrounded by, made it more vocational to continue working for him. I entered a competition at London Photographic Association, and I won it. This gave me enough confidence and understanding that there is something people find interesting in my photography.

It is a brilliant way of expressing myself. I’ve always loved doing it, but I wasn’t brave enough.

NJ - From where do you gain inspiration for your photography?

PP - I am inspired by everything, I love colours, the way light falls over someone’s face. I love fashion photography, I find it incredibly inspiring, when it’s really good. I can look at photography books forever. But what inspires me and what I like to photograph most, are people, mainly women, people I find beautiful who perhaps others don’t. It is a bit of a secret beauty. I want to capture that secret and document it. All the people that I cast are possibly people others would just pass on the street, but they would stop me in my tracks.


NJ - Why did you spend 7 years taking self-portraits?

PP - From the beginning I just wanted to take nudes and I didn’t really know who to take pictures of that was always available, I am a bit too polite to ask someone else to stand in a difficult position five times and leave their body aching for weeks. As I started to take the photographs I realised that they became autobiographical. My gymnastic skills became a benefit, I could push myself more than anyone else. It became this kind of secret theatre that I was creating. I really enjoyed doing it. I think they are very brave and honest. I don’t mean to say anything particular in the photographs, they are spontaneous. I look at the room graphically and think how my body can fit in finding myself in these spaces that are quite, forgotten and empty. Sort of hijacking the rooms, for example the space under a stair, made me think of that there hasn’t been any human contact there under, let’s just press a bit of humanity in there. There is something about the physical contact in a space, and becoming a part of it visually, just for that time. Each picture candidly portrays a moment. In one of the portraits I am in a fashion studio pulling a piece of fabric, this was during the time when my husband lost his mother, I think there is a strong link how I respond to those emotions through this photograph.
They are never pre-meditated the final image is entirely dictated by the location and my body becoming a part of that space.



NJ - There is a couple of pictures of you being pregnant and also other women that are pregnant. Why did you choose pregnancy as one element in your work?

PP - It is interesting because there have been a couple of articles written about the Body Of Work and it has mistakingly been defined as a journey of my own body throughout the years, which wrong, however my pregnancy was a very important part of my life. When I started to take the pictures I wanted them to be dynamic and strong. Nudes can be so sexual, I wanted them to be figurative and funny. I don’t think it would be honest enough not showing my body being pregnant. It’s a celebration to women and their strength, and pregnancy is apart of that ascendancy.

NJ - how did pregnancy change your relationship with your career?

PP - It made me feel like nothing else mattered, I didn’t think of work, it was just the most fascinating and powerfully joyous. There is so many questions going around your head, “Have I done enough, will I be a good mother…” The intense creative rush you feel I think is linked to the clock that is ticking, you think you can’t do much more, once you are becoming a mother. Working with Tim was like family, we were a team. They were very supportive. People are strange around pregnant women, they feel they need to look after them, it is a bit strange, almost looked at as a disability. However Tim really pushed me to work harder. As a pregnant woman, you feel extremely powerful, but also vulnerable. I felt a certain urgent, because there was a lot of things going on, like selling my house and buying a new one. So I feel I got a lot of support as well as I needed support.


NJ - When you asked yourself “have I done enough?” is that something you thought of much, felt that there is things you wish to do, but because of motherhood you can’t anymore?

PP - Well yes in the beginning, I thought aplenty, I felt that my life was going to change so dramatically, and it did. You come at things differently having kids, I do personally. You become very organised and you worry more. The times I do think of my creativity and art, I get a feeling that I’m selfish, something I never felt before. Putting myself first, and as a mother you never do, It is a constant battle. 8 months of my pregnancy I was very productive. I took a lot of portraits and was drawn to friends that had children. I found pregnant women and mothers fascinating to work with. However creativity doesn’t only go into your work, I was very creative in other ares, for example I felt this urge to refurnish my kitchen. I had this powerful feeling to turn my whole kitchen yellow.


NJ - Did you ever think of using pregnancy as an element in your previous work, or did it occur after your own pregnancy?

PP - I am trying to figure that out, I don’t think so. I did one, a long time ago, but it was different. I looked at pregnancy separately than I do at present. The trust is stronger with the women I take photos of today, they know I’ve been there. When I was pregnant with Olive, I had thre

e other pregnant women in the room with me during a shoot, and that was a magnificent feeling, I loved it. I wonder if the relationship between us was particularly special because of the pregnancy. I think there is a real beauty in that, a real honesty, a sort of clarity somehow.


NJ - You describe on your website, that 9 days before giving birth "an overwhelming calm pois and balance of pregnancy" came over you. This is being illustrated in one of your portraits as you are leaning against the wall heavily pregnant, tell me more?

PP - The calm before the storm. I had spent such a long time on preparing, working and house hunting, so when time came closer to give birth, I felt as I needed a calm moment. It is really interesting that I chose that pose, because it is very balanced, very calm, compared to the others with a lot of tension in them. This one is very honest and open. It could be seen as a metaphor for women these days, they work and there is a lot of pressure. That calm I feel in that picture is like breathing out and getting closer to the feelings that I am a woman and I am going to have a baby, and I am going to become a mother. It is an extraordinary thing, first you just think about the pregnancy, and then about the actual fact that you are going to become a mother.

Claire Hickey - "I was becoming strong in the feeling that after I had my baby I was still going to be an artist"

Visual Artist Claire Hickey is the woman behind the Richborough Estate Prize winning art work GRAVIDUS I and GRAVIDUS II. A mould-making process of two sculpture pieces.

The work in GRAVIDUS represents the physical aspects of her own pregnancy and the internal and external processes and feelings that were happening throughout. Cleverly,”Gravidus means pregnant in Latin, but could also mean, heavy, burdened or teeming. Claire realised her work became more meaningful and rich as her own pregnancy became embedded in the making.

Claire has been practising for six years. She’s tutored adults and toddlers, nurturing their creativity in diverse settings and has recently completed her MA at The School of Art in Birmingham, in the beginning of her career her main material was clay. She preferred creating hand sized models, exploring the kinds of material that made people want to touch and investigate her creations.

gravidus blog

During her progress, she moved away from clay and started to look into other techniques such as casting and mould making and how her body could engage with the making process; It became interesting to her, how she could use her own forces to push into a material and create a certain form.
As her work and her pregnancy progressed, it was as if the mould was representing her and her body, how she felt as an artist approaching motherhood. Claire wondered how she would continue her artistry with the demands of mothering her child.
“I realised that the mould was kind of representing me and my body and also how I felt as an artist, the fact that I was going to become a mother and that I wanted to carry on as an artist, I was becoming strong in the feeling that after I had my baby I was still going to be an artist”

Two mirror-image concrete blocks is the second sculpture piece which she named GRAVIDUS II, both with internal forms that you can see through a “pour hole”. This came to represent an umbilical connection between the interior form and the external structure, comparable to a mother and her baby.
Claire is fascinated by how much impact her pregnancy had through energy and inspiration within her work.

gravidus II

“When seven months pregnant, I created a plaster block 50×50, which was incredible heavy, I got heavier also my art did”
Claire became incredibly productive and for five months she worked more than full time on her art. All the emotions she felt got imprinted in her work.

The confusion and fear she felt in the beginning of her pregnancy became a source of strength despite the difficult birth of her child. She had gained a new artistic identity which, like creating anything, is a process with different phases and outcomes, this is something Claire wishes to go back to and explore more.

“I want to go through my work and research on the different stages I went through and continue on my project, maybe create GRAVIDUS III”

See more of Claire's Work


Rosaria Gracia - “Human beings are too complex to only do one thing, and it is ok to diversify..."

Rosaria Gracia is well known for her versatile professional life. She has been dancing since the age of six and specialises in movement informed by celebratory dances from around the world, mostly based on Latin dances. She also carries a strong academic background.

Her projects stand for her passion of working with individuals and organisations to help flourish and develop their skills. Devising and performing at site specific shows, her experience in arts and health projects reflect her commitment to the positive effect that dance and movement can have on people’s health and wellbeing.

I booked an appointment with her to talk about her career and her pregnancy. She is eloquent, full of presence and charisma. Rosaria is already a mother and is pregnant with her second child.

In parallel to her own performances and working as a lecturer she also runs dance sessions for women; she tells me how one time, one of the ladies in
her class came up to her and complained about the pace, it was going too fast. The lady was concerned over the fact that Rosaria was pregnant and
saw it as an issue. But no one else in the class had any problems with the rhythm, she continues. “It did affect me the fact that pregnancy was seen
before my professionalism. If I hadn’t been as strong in knowing what I want to do, that might have impacted me to stop with the dance sessions.”

Burning the Clocks Brighton 2014“I did a performance last week, and I was wearing this costume that was covering my belly, so people couldn’t see that I was pregnant. We were just dancing on the stage and there were no questions around that. Afterwards when I changed and met up with the people again, they were shocked to see my belly. That is because I don’t show any difference on my upper body when I’m dancing. That invisibility is quite useful people can’t apply any preconceptions.”

There are expectations and attitudes not always fairly put, by both our surroundings and from women themselves that colour the way we deal with our capacity, she continues. Her main issue with pregnancy is psychological engagement, “There is a constant fight in a way with the idea society has of what you can do or not when you are pregnant.”

Out of curiosity about her first pregnancy, I asked how she managed to flex her professional life whilst pregnant. She gives me a straight and confident answer that she felt good physically and was very productive during most of her first pregnancy.

Further, she believes her own productivity was based on the fact that she had a deadline, she needed to get done whatever project she took on, before labour was due. She continues,“I am not sure if the levels of creativity are linked directly to pregnancy, you just need to adapt for different reasons due to what you are going through in life. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop doing whatever you are doing because of the stage you are in, I think it is the same thing with pregnancy.”

She believes organisations like ProCreate can help question the society on the attitude towards pregnant women, and be able to create that space where women have the power to choose their own limits themselves.

*ph by Heather Buckley