“That’s a potty mark.” Polly Borland points at a large photograph of a doughy ass, the flesh marked not just by the flecks and blotches of middle age, but a large pink welt at the center. It’s from sitting on a child’s toilet-training seat, and, for the practitioners of paraphilic infantilism (also known as adult baby syndrome) that Borland spent years seeking and photographing in the early 90s, it’s as much a badge of recherché sexual appetite as a sub’s whip marks.
Polly Borland, Julianne at Home, 1994–1999
A swift Google search reveals a more recent flowering of the adult baby as a subject—just last year MTV released True Life: I’m an Adult Baby, and the Huffington Post recently reported on the first brick-and-mortar store in the US to cater exclusively to adult babies. The website Little AB’s Babyland dubs itself “the fun and friendly place for Adult Babies to play and digress.” Such a place did not exist, or at least was much more rare when the photographs comprising Borland’s series The Babies were taken. She found her subjects by combing through back-page ads in fetish magazines, and their trust was less easily won than the adult baby subjects of, say, Extreme Love, or even My Strange Addiction. The enduring uncanniness of this collection is the lack of anthropological pretense. Even though the project began as an assignment for the British newspaper the Independent, Borland continued to visit the babies, men and women with jobs and obligations that they fulfilled well enough to have the time and disposable income for these communal, ritual acts of regression. There is dissonance not only in content—a large hairy foot stuffed into a small pink shoe, taut lips dripping with baby food—but in the construction of the photographs themselves, hovering between the cinematic and the voyeuristic but wholly embodying neither.
Polly Borland, Cathy at Mummy Hazel’s, 1994–1999
The concepts of self-care, or self-expression, now seemingly twinned at the forefront of popular consciousness, are mixed up with the notions of identification and otherness that guide conversation around this kind of photography—one operating at the nexus of documentation and aesthetization. The effect of Borland’s lighting is at times eerily close to the gritty glamour of Larry Clark or Nan Goldin. I know glamour is a fraught term for “art” photography, hinging, as John Berger has pointed out, on a certain kind of social envy. I don’t know that Goldin sought to elicit envy in her photographs (her seminal slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was originally conceived to entertain the very friends who are its subject—maybe glamour is a feedback loop...) which made the flush of it that rose in me upon first seeing Goldin’s work immediately become counter-weighted with guilt. Borland’s tremble with something else. How embarrassed are you looking at these photographs? Is it for you or them?
Polly Borland, Simey and friends in a motel room, Melbourne, Australia, 1994–1999
That The Babies might today elicit more of a shrug than a gasp only speaks to the prescience of Borland’s project. Before voyeurism became enthralled with the preemptive confessionalism that animates nearly all of our interactions, Borland offered a clear-eyed view of certain mute intimacies—taboo by dint of sheer vulnerability—with an eye neither so cold as to merely document or so patronizing as to signal empathy. The elegance of the compositions, approaching something like the plainness of respect, place the onus of identification on the viewer. It’s important to remember that the last time these photographs were shown, the most ubiquitous fashion trend was the soft, fuzzy, candy-colored Juicy Couture sweatsuit. Little did we know the oft-derided matchy-matchy terrycloth leisurewear was merely a gateway drug to the sartorial phenomenon known as The Snuggie, an adult onesie masquerading as loungewear that we bought ironically but, behind closed doors, used in earnest.
Polly Borland, Linda at Home, Sydney, Australia, 1994–1999
The question still posed to the viewer of these photographs is how deep our own rituals go. Spazzed out from careering, strategizing, and trying to make money, I recently followed a friend to a candlelight yoga session. Toward the end, the honey-voiced instructor told us to lay on our backs “Now bring your knees up to your ears, grab your feet, and gently rock yourself back and forth.” The pose, nearly identical to the one assumed by a diaper-clad, pacifier sucking woman in Linda At Home, Sydney, Australia, is known as the Happy Baby.
Polly Borland’s The Babies continues at Mier Gallery in Los Angeles through August 17.
Christina Catherine Martinez is an art writer and comedian based in Los Angeles.
(Image at top: Polly Borland, Snuggles in Mummy Hazel’s Garden, 1994–1999. All images: Courtesy of the artist and Mier)