The Race Box, 2018
Kingdoms may come, kingdoms may go
Whatever the end may be
Old Father Thames keeps rolling along
Down to the mighty sea
So go the lyrics of the 1933 ballad Old Father Thames. The song is an exhortation to Britons weathering the precarious period between two devastating wars to keep their chins up and their character steady, like the river that flows through their capital city. Along the banks of that tidal river, the stories of their everyday lives unfolded, and extraordinary events took place. For millennia, the Thames has been a nexus for all manner of human activity, from commerce and labor to religion and leisure to struggles with nature and personal triumphs and tragedies. It’s no surprise, then, that an artist like Julia Fullerton-Batten would find inspiration there. The London-based fine-art photographer has a zeal for uncovering fascinating stories and using rich colors, cinematic lighting and a healthy dose of imagination to bring them to life. She has brought this narrative style to her latest series of images, also called Old Father Thames.
“I started Old Father Thames because I live near the river, and I used to live in Oxford, which also has the river flowing through it,” says Fullerton-Batten.
She spent her childhood in the United States and Germany before moving to Oxford as a teenager. Her studies took her to art school, where she started shooting with large-format cameras and the kind of deliberate attention to capturing each frame that she has favored ever since. After spending five years assisting on advertising shoots and picking up the lighting and production chops that are essential to her assiduously produced large-scale images today, she began shooting for commercial clients of her own.
Then, in 2005, she broke into the fine-art world with her fantastical series Teenage Stories. Using street-cast models and drawing on stories from Fullerton-Batten’s own life, the series explored the anxieties and imaginative lives of teenage girls.
She followed Teenage Stories with a steady flow of inventive fine-art series that have a strong narrative focus. In earlier series, like Awkward, In Between and Mothers and Daughters, she continued to mine her own biography. Then, she began to delve into other people’s stories, spending months researching them to produce series like In Service, which depicts the lives of early 20th-century domestic servants in Britain, and Feral Children, which conjures up scenes from the childhoods of real-life people who grew up without human contact.
These days Fullerton-Batten divides her time between fine-art projects and commissioned work—and a little mudlarking with her two young sons on the side. Mudlarking is the practice of hunting through the mud on the foreshore of the Thames at low tide for things the river has left behind. Mudlarkers today search for trinkets and archeological artifacts as a hobby, but mudlarking is an old tradition whose fanciful-sounding name belies its darker origins. In the 18th and 19th centuries, children and elderly people living in poverty would search through the mud for anything they could use or sell. It was her modern-day mudlarking that led to Fullerton-Batten’s Old Father Thames series.
Going mudlarking with her kids and a friend who is a serious mudlarker opened her eyes to the river’s history.
“There are hundreds, thousands, more likely millions of possible stories based on history, traditions or customs along the River Thames,” she says. “I suddenly realized that I wanted to make my attraction to the river into a photographic project.” She dug into historical accounts of notable events and everyday life along the banks of the Thames, then launched the project with a tribute to the mudlarkers who first inspired her. Her “Mudlarkers” image is set in the Victorian era, showing children carrying buckets and searching the muddy foreshore.
Next came 20 more images, some dredging up stories from the distant past, like the writer Mary Wollstonecraft’s suicide attempt at Putney Bridge in 1795, others portraying more recent events, like the completion of Waterloo Bridge by a crew of female construction workers during World War II and the surprising arrival of a young bottlenose whale in central London in 2006. Still others show ongoing traditions such as baptisms, the Durga Puja Hindu religious ceremony, and swan upping, the annual wrangling of the royal swans that has taken place since the Middle Ages.
Fullerton-Batten traveled in distance as well as time to create her images. “I haven’t shot everything, for example, in London,” she says. For an image depicting a baptism, she found a spot where people used to be baptized in the town of Cricklade, Wiltshire, near where the river begins. “I try and shoot each scenario at the place where it all really occurred,” she says. Sometimes that’s a tall order. “There are very many rules and restrictions imposed by various authorities affecting photographing along the River Thames,” she explains.
One of the scenes she had to recreate in a setting away from the location of the original event was the 1814 Frost Fair, an impromptu four-day festival that took place on the frozen river itself. The reason was simple: “It was the last time the river froze over completely in the tidal part of the Thames in London,” says Fullerton-Batten. After 1814, changes to bridge construction improved the flow of the river, and the Little Ice Age that had chilled Europe for hundreds of years was coming to a close. The Frost Fair’s original location became permanently unavailable.
At first, Fullerton-Batten’s plans for recreating it were modest: “My original idea was to hire an ice-skating rink, have a few people ice skating, erect some tents, and create a painted background.” But her usual creative ambition got the best of her. “As I researched it more, I thought, ‘No, I’ve got to have a fire-breather, a sword swallower, a contortionist!’” By the time she’d finished planning, the production had grown into her most extravagant shoot yet, with about 50 cast members and 45 crew on set. “I hired this huge, enormous drive-in studio,” she says. “We set everything up and completed the shoot in three days. And they were really intense days.” In addition to shooting stills, Fullerton-Batten directed a short film of the fair. “I felt I needed to show more of the atmosphere and the sounds in the story,” she says, “almost as if you could smell it.”
She pulled it all off thanks to an exacting, months-long preproduction process that is typical of her fine-art shoots. “I do as much preparation before the shoot as possible, knowing the story I want to tell, the mood I wish to create. It then makes the shoot itself much easier,” she says. “I can focus on directing the actors and getting my crew to adjust the lighting to what I want to create.”
Preparation is especially important when it comes to casting and briefing her talent. She hired specialists, like a professional fire-breather and the acclaimed contortionist Pixie Le Knot, and then put out a casting call for other roles. “Many people came forward, and I was just looking for really interesting characters,” she says. “Most of them were actors, but others hadn’t much acting experience.”
Fullerton-Batten likes to audition actors herself instead of leaving that to a casting agent. “It’s only when I’ve actually pointed my camera at them and have them acting out their role before I really know if they can do it,” she says. Once she’s chosen her cast members, she talks with each of them about their characters’ stories. For the Frost Fair shoot, she needed characters from all walks of life. “I needed one to be the pompous gentleman or another a kid running around begging,” she says. “I would brief them and direct them before they’re about to go on set and then hope that they’re living that character.”
In the Frost Fair stills, the characters appear as if a hush has fallen over the festivities for just a moment. That momentary suspension is a painterly technique common to Fullerton-Batten’s work: For all the energy and emotion her characters can convey, they’re never speaking to each other or caught mid-gesture. Instead, it’s the image that seems to whisper to the viewer to stop and look. It’s a subtle but powerful injunction in an era when pictures fly by faster and faster. “I quite like the stillness and just feeling the motion and still feeling the energy without people laughing or talking,” says Fullerton-Batten. “It’s quite hit-and-miss as well with the way they move their mouths, and there’s something aesthetically more beautiful when they’re generally just looking.” And with the Frost Fair images, she says, “I wanted to create the feeling you have when you see something for the first time, such as a fire-breather. You’re flabbergasted at what has happened and just stare, and at that moment you’re actually unable to talk at all.”
Fullerton-Batten also expresses a certain awe for the city where she lives; it’s been a constant source of inspiration as her career has evolved. “I’m very lucky that I live in an amazing city like London, where I can just pop into the National Portrait Gallery and see the Cindy Sherman exhibition, or I can go to the Maritime Museum exhibition about the landing on the moon,” she says. “I think that’s why I will never leave London. I’m just so inspired by this city.”
Her Old Father Thames project, too, seems like something she has no plans to leave behind. “With many of my other projects, I felt that there was a definite point of completion after I had shot a certain number of images and was merely changing the location, perhaps with another model in other clothing and different props, and I was in danger of getting a bit repetitive in telling the story. But with my Old Father Thames project, I feel that each story is very individual and interesting in its own right and deserves to be included in the project,” says Fullerton-Batten. “It’s been three years now since I started the project, and there seem to be still more stories that I want to tell. Certainly, I don’t feel that I’m really ready to call it completed just yet. Maybe it’s one of those projects that will just go on forever.”