Viewing a photograph taken by Polly Alderton is a poignant artistic encounter. Her photographs combine both a bittersweet nostalgia and stark immediacy; a shimmering fusion of memory and present experience, like twining a pressed flower from an old summer between your fingers, the colours still bright as ever. Her photography is focused on depicting the realities of family, motherhood, and is situated in her British working class experience. It’s photography framed as a deeply personal window into a whole life, composed of cherished moments. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat with Polly at the release of her new photography collection; each page the photographic equivalent of preserved blossoms and petals.
Hi Polly! You have a stunning new photo series ready for imminent publication by Sentana books, entitled 009: Polly Alderton. Could you begin by introducing the collection for those who may be unfamiliar with your work, and what its main creative concerns are?
Thank you! I largely work within the frame of The Family Album. 009 is comprised of photographs I’ve taken within my family home of my children.
How was the process of choosing the specific images you wanted to include in the collection? Was there a particular message, atmosphere or narrative you wanted to import?
It was a joint process, myself and Keith from Setanta Books and Tom from ODpublishing. We all three had different ideas on how we wanted the book to look. It was an interesting process, I had a strong idea of what I felt I’d like to see in the book and I think a lot of that was based on sentimentality - I find it tricky to separate myself from images and I also feel cautious of how selections of images can totally shape my narrative, it warps it, do you know what I mean? It would be impossible to show it in its entirety, as a complete collection and so it’s important that it doesn’t get lost, I think what I’m referring to is the Truth of my work. So there were compromises from all of us on what worked, it had to be viable commercially too. An example of this might be the image, Launderette; it’s a really stylish picture and on it’s own not really representative of the pictures I’m taking?
Your photos are evocatively naturalistic, movingly so. What is the importance of crafting this naturalism into your photography to you, in an artistic sense?
It feels really important to me. When I was a child we moved homes a lot and I found this quite unsettling. I'm very sentimental and I want to recall as much detail as I can. I realised that when I would look at old pictures of me and my sisters I would more often be looking in to the background for details, you know like, how the curtain might have always sat on top of one of the storage heaters instead of skimming it to reach the floor (I’m looking at a specific picture as I say this!). So sometimes I want to move stuff out of the background to make it a better picture but I try not to, because I think those details are as important as the subject itself?
Polly Alderton Metsalmagazine 1.jpg
Throughout your work, your family and their day to day lives are utterly central; you’ve spoken before about your desire to document your experiences of childhood and motherhood. Do you think your photography, or how you will approach it, will change or develop as your family grows older, and those family dynamics inevitably change too?
Yes, it already is, I’m not sure yet of where it’s heading but I feel a massive change. Our oldest children are now teenagers and the youngest will be 9 tomorrow!
When they were born I started taking pictures of them and it became very much part of who I was to them. We had conversations about consent and my pictures etc but I wasn’t prepared for when one of my children reached the teen ages that they felt uncomfortable with the public-ness of my photographs. I think it’s really important that I acknowledge that it wasn’t always ok for me to show such raw images of them. This has changed what I choose to show in my images, and of course Who gets shown. Also, organically and as it’s supposed to be - my children don’t want to be around me as much, they have their friends and they’re sussing out their own paths and identities.
I’ve noticed that I seem to be taking a lot of pictures of my oldest son from behind, his shoulders and the back of his head; he’s so much taller than me now. I’m not sure why I’m repeating this image, but it does tend to be something I’ve noticed throughout my work, that I’ll repeat a pattern not understanding why until it reveals itself to me. I have a picture of him as a really little boy, from behind (but me looking down). Maybe there’s something about his giant-ness (to me) that makes me photograph him this way, also its quite maternal isn’t it - to watch your children go in to the world, it’s often like having a clamp on my throat, I miss him so much but I have to let him go.
When I’ve talked before about my own childhood it’s in the respect of growing up alongside my children now. I didn’t find things so happy growing up and it was quite a difficult time. So when I had children (fairly young) it was really hard, I struggled a lot with my own identity and this crippling fear that I was failing at everything. I found it really soothing to watch them experiencing new things and I sort of experienced them at the same time. I saw this thing -your tongue knows how everything feels - look around your room now and you’ll realise that it’s true. I think this is what motherhood has been for me, like a re-wiring.
You collated an energetic, raw series covering the COVID-19 lockdown as well; how did you navigate having your artistic and personal environments confined? Did it present any particular challenges or, conversely, opportunities?
The two most obvious answers to this are:
The first thing I notice when I look back on the images from this series are how many of them feature masks or tight spaces (see, my youngest in the metal tub image or any of the masked pictures), how much we individually sought confinement to hide from confinement. A lot of those images feel quite claustrophobic to me now. It was a lesson in letting go too, the boys got into doing these huge daily play fights which almost always ended in either tears or a breakage (often both). In our home that energy felt big and often overwhelming. It often looks quite aggressive and in a lot of ways I found it interesting to observe and photograph the small shifts between playing and real fighting. Also to just let relationships be, existing separately from me, (of course I intervene if I need to).
The second thing was this; when the lockdown was first announced and we didn’t realise how serious it was etc, it felt like a gift to have the time with my children. There is an image in the book of my oldest son wearing headphones whilst sleeping in a garden chair; This is a stand out lockdown image for me and I picture it as an entire scene. Quite pathetically I’m sitting on the grass under him, just watching him. He was frustrated and felt tethered by the lockdown experience and in response to it I became quite needy with him. I had these ideas that we might watch films together and generally hang out, he wanted to be with his friends out in the world.
Your photos possess a startling immediacy, but they also impress a deep feeling of nostalgia upon the viewer. In your description for the collection concerning your father, brilliantly named, does your daddy have a gun?, you note its exploration of ‘searching the past for clues and things that tie us to the future.’ How do you feel photography relates to the past, and how do you incorporate that into your work?
It’s a bit like time travel, photography, isn’t it? In the moment of taking a picture it’s a perfectly preserved slither of time. And when I reference searching the backgrounds of old pictures, that’s like clue hunting, I find that there’s an endless amount of memories I can unlock. I think of memory as a bit of a beast, maybe like an octopus, the way the tentacles pulse and sucker on to things. Invariably the past and future collide. In my project, Burning House, I talk about how things moved quite quickly when I was a child; I think that I started clue hunting pictures for memories to hoard. When I’m photographing my children I’m almost anticipating a future version of them doing the same thing.
Polly Alderton Metsalmagazine 5.jpg
You reference the Virginia Woolf essay ‘A Sketch of the Past’ in your descriptive notes for Burning House. You say of her, ‘The force of correspondence makes her want to stick to the facts; the force of coherence wants to tell a better story.’ How do stories or storytelling (or even Virginia Woolf), relate to your photography?
I really like the phrase, Show Don’t Tell. I’ve always wanted to make a film but I’m not very good at it because I get so stuck on each scene and can only think in ‘stills’. I definitely have a narrative in my mind but as much as I can want to make it a fluid thing it will only ever be a stomp, I can only work in individual frames. So my photos might be like a film still if you like, you just don’t get the wider picture.
I’ve been reading and enjoying Virginia Woolf only in the last five years or so, before now her writing had felt inaccessible to me. I love how she talks about her mother; as this omnipresence, she struggles to muster a visual recollection of her mother. My mum left when I was young and we were raised by my dad. A really strong sensory memory I have is the smell and feel of her hands. Most of my memories are this way when it comes to her actually. I think it was reading this and relating to it so strongly that encouraged me to continue reading Virginia Woolf.
I read the story you told behind the shot included in the ongoing collection, Rid the Pulpit; photographing your childhood friend Emily and her son Magnus proved to be a difficult process, but the perfect shot seemed to present itself at the last minute, almost spontaneously. Your photography has such a frank, almost impromptu nature - do you find most shots introduce themselves with this unrehearsed attitude, or do they always require a little coaxing from the photographer?
I always have an idea and it always changes. It’s always collaborative. It has to be really doesn’t it, if you’re working with real people and telling their stories. For me, it’s so easy to spot those images that have been meticulously curated, they feel lifeless to me. I’ve a picture that does really well, it seems dead popular, it’s of my boy wearing a rabbit mask in the window during lockdown; I totally forced it, bribed him with chocolate. I like the picture but it doesn’t really mean anything because I can see it's lifeless
Staying on the topic of Emily and Magnus, you described a heaviness or jadedness in the atmosphere of the shoot after you and Emily spent some time reminiscing on your working class upbringing, and the theme of ‘opportunities’ that informed that particular composition. The working class experience is so inherent to your photography; how do you deal with a subject that can be so personally and historically loaded?
Yeah, I’m really attached to this work so of course it affects me. I don’t know so much how to answer this question, that it’s personally and historically loaded is almost of no consequence, it’s just part of my story. I think, when you’re in it you’re just in it - if I look back to childhood I can say I was aware of my class but didn’t particularly have time to ruminate over what it meant to be working class, it was pretty shit most of the time to be honest. That said, I think my experience of it was often that it could be very communal, people helped out and stuck together, there’s a loyalty.
Emily and I did a Q&A at Colchester Arts Centre with Paul Sng for the release of the Invisible Britain book, it surprised me how many people came up after to tell us that they were born low and working class - there’s a pride in it, I don’t know if that’s because some people want to attach themselves to it in order to make their success seem like it was reached in despite of their class or if they just want to proudly stand by their class. It interests me that people are so disparaging of the working classes yet it’s more often the class people are proudest to be associated with.
Polly Alderton Metsalmagazine 4.jpg
As well as your passion for documenting intimate family life, you’ve also shot some pretty big names, David Attenborough and Mary Beard among them. Is there any major difference for you in photographing these public figures as opposed to the relaxed, candid atmosphere of the family portraits? I suppose your family do count as public figures in some way now, through the popularity of your photography!
Yeah there’s a major difference. I am blessed to get this work and it’s really interesting to witness and be part of. But it’s really just my work ‘work’. I don’t feel any attachment to it, I love to have the experiences but that's it.
I wonder, how do your family feel about being photographed, and in some ways your collective muse? Are they pretty much used to you documenting your family life now?
Oh they’re so used to it! At the beginning of October I had a bit of a nasty fall and broke 7 bones! My family have been taking pictures of me on their phones and I’m getting to experience what constant documentation feels like, I’m not sure I like it (or, I wish they’d find more flattering angles). It’s a really big ask that really I never asked, to let me photograph our time together and their experiences. I’m very grateful that they tolerate me! 
Finally (and as if I would ask an easy question to finish on), do you have a favourite photograph or collection you’ve taken? And if so, why?
I love all of them, I think I’d find it hard to choose. The Devil Won’t Keep is probably my proudest work, it’s like my self portrait or my portrait of motherhood.
Of course I love the picture with Emily and Magnus too.
Polly Alderton Metsalmagazine 2.jpg
Polly Alderton Metsalmagazine 3.jpg
Polly Alderton Metsalmagazine 6.jpg
Polly Alderton Metsalmagazine 10.jpg
Polly Alderton Metsalmagazine 8.jpg
Polly Alderton Metsalmagazine 9.jpg
Polly Alderton Metsalmagazine 7.jpg