For photographer Ingrid Pollard, clothing is part of the job

Ingrid Pollard is concerned with clothes — and not just her own. “I am that sort of photographer,” she says. “Always looking at what people are wearing, what they are comfortable in, what they are uncomfortable in, and whether they are comfortable with me taking their picture. I have to read all of that.”

The 69-year-old photographer and artist has explored over a 40-year career the codes in the costumes we wear, and how they relate to notions of identity, nationality and race, now and in the past.

This is a significant year for Pollard. As well as Carbon Slowly Turning, a major show at Turner Contemporary in Margate (“not a retrospective — more a survey”), she is also nominated for this year’s Turner Prize, one of the highest accolades in British art. How does she feel about it? “Great! And it’s great for photography because there’s only ever been a few of us.”

Pollard’s work is full of images of people in costumes that play supporting roles. Take her Self Evident series of eight portraits of black Britons, taken in 1995 and now part of the V&A collection.

A man ready for a nightclub stands in an arable field; a young woman in a satin gown is entranced on a beach; another young woman stands in headwrap and robes in front of a suburban garden hedge in full flower. The protagonists are posed in English landscapes, dressed in garb that seems out of place. All direct their gaze from us — they are disengaged.

Detail from Ingrid Pollard’s ‘Self Evident’ (1992)
Detail from Ingrid Pollard’s ‘Self Evident’ (1992) © courtesy of the artist

“Their clothes become part of that conflict in how you understand what’s happening,” says Pollard, as she shows me around the Turner Contemporary exhibition, where Self Evident is on show until September 25. “I want you to bring your life experiences of evening dress or whatever, to how you read it. It’s not that they [the subjects] are incongruous. It’s an unusual setting.”

Self Evident is one of hundreds of works in Carbon Slowly Turning. As well as original photography, the show includes found images enhanced by Pollard in “an ongoing conversation with the audience” and installations. Sometimes Pollard appears to be examining how people present themselves; sometimes she is questioning how the rest of us observe others.

We meet in Margate just as she is finishing work on the exhibition to talk about her life, career — and because this is an interview for Art of Fashion — the role of costume in her work, and her own sense of sartorial style. Charlie Porter’s 2021 book What Artists Wear has drawn attention to how artists dress. Pollard finds it amusing — “It’s really weird!” — though she clearly enjoys clothes.

She is sharply dressed, with self-possession and a hint of UK mod counterculture style to her black-and-white checkerboard-print shirt, straight jeans and 1960s-style brown-suede shoes. Is she a mod? “Oh no,” she says. “But there’s a famous picture of Pauline Black (of UK ska band The Selecter) in a shirt like this. I was looking for one like that for years. I even went to the mod shops on Carnaby Street but I couldn’t get one. I ended up getting this in Macy’s in New York. It’s OK, but it’s a men’s one.”

When Pollard chooses clothes for public appearances or for portraits, she says she thinks carefully about their effect. She is “unafraid of bright colours” and tailored shirts are a favourite. She sometimes has them made.

Ingrid Pollard at the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate
Ingrid Pollard at the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate © Olivia Lifungula

A recent portrait shows her resplendent in a fitted white masculine-style dress-shirt with winged collar, worn with a delicate and complex beaded orange necklace, which looks like an antique piece, perhaps South American, though she tells me she found it in a shop in Brighton. The combination is ingenious, and like the costumes in Self Evident, possibly subversive in that it mixes English formality with other identities.

As a child Pollard was highly conscious of the role that clothes play in belonging. “But less so now,” she says.

Born in Guyana in 1953, she emigrated to the UK with her parents three years later and spent her childhood in east London before training at the London College of Printing and later, Derby University. Her parents helped shape her awareness of clothes and identity. She recalls in detail how they dressed in her childhood, for weddings, evening events and on political demonstrations. She still has a pair of her mother’s evening shoes.

“I can see them in photos on 1960s ban-the-bomb marches in London, dressed as beatniks. They weren’t rich, but they were fashion connoisseurs.”

London, too, offered sartorial stimulation. As a teenager in the 1960s and ’70s, Pollard would scour Camden market for second-hand style.

In the 1980s, after a series of landmark group exhibitions at the ICA and the Battersea Arts Centre, Pollard quickly came to be associated with the rise of British black art, spurred by the Black Arts Movement, which included artists such as Lubaina Himid, and confronted racism in its practise.

Some of Pollard’s work of that era is reportage documenting London’s street demonstrations: anti-fascist movements and later protests against Clause 28, a piece of UK legislation that sought to prevent “the promotion of homosexuality”. The themes and forces are bleak, but Pollard’s photos capture the joy of demonstrating. “And the less joyful experiences when you’re manhandled by police,” she adds.

Detail from Pollard’s ‘Bow Down and Very Low’ (2021)
Detail from Pollard’s ‘Bow Down and Very Low’ (2021) © Rob Harris

Pollard was politically active, too, as part of the radical Lenthall Road Workshop feminist collective, a campaigning organisation in London, and as co-founder in 1988 of Autograph, the agency that supports black photographers.

More recently, Pollard has worked with colonial-era collections of photographs, including the Caribbean Photo Archive. Here, clothes and costumes in the images she has chosen force us to question what we see.

The Valentine Days, on show in Margate, is a series of hand-tinted digital photographic prints of Jamaican scenes, taken by a photographic firm called Valentine & Sons in the 1890s. Kingston harbour is bright and busy, the streets are thronging, young women in floral Victorian dresses and carrying baskets are seated in formal poses. At first glance, they are picture postcards, but the photographers were on a more sinister assignment, commissioned by the state to show potential property and business developers Jamaica’s working population and infrastructure that could build fortunes.

“People are seen in the same way as the ferries or the roads or the harbour. These people could work for you,” says Pollard. “They were once looking at the photographer. Now they are looking at us.”

Another image from 1890s Jamaica shows a formally dressed group during Emancipation Day celebrations, digitally enhanced by Pollard. “Some of these people will have been enslaved, and yet they are so well dressed,” says Pollard. “It is all about the clothes.”

Recently, Pollard has moved to the north of England, where a neighbour who knew of her interest in clothes has given her a handmade Victorian dress, complete with corset and lace bonnet, which had been sitting in a cupboard for 60 years.

She is still working out what to do with it — she might turn it into an installation. “It’s got fantastic details,” she says. “Buttons with little angel heads. And oh, the lace. I’ve got a thing about lace. It doesn’t do anything, apart from be lace. It’s a signal of wealth.”

Pollard says it is only in recent years that she says she has been considered for solo shows at major galleries such as Turner Contemporary. The Turner Prize nomination will lift her career again.

But she is wary of her entire body of work being interpreted as solely concerned with race, or somehow documenting a black experience. Pollard does not want to be “forced into that thing about identity — it’s not quite about that.

It’s more about a line of enquiry.”

Which line we choose to take when we view Pollard’s photographs, she leaves us to decide. What her work ultimately reveals to us is that our identities are constructs — whoever we are, and however we choose to dress. 

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