Art & Photography

Carla Borel: Stillsoho

The London-based photographer talks to us about her exhibition of street photography capturing a new generation of Sohoites

Living and working the West End, its inevitable that this distinct area of London forms the heartbeat of photographer Carla Borel’s work. Her new exhibition of street photography – featuring familiar faces from the Soho scene around the pub she worked at for years – Stillsoho opens this week at the Society Club from 11 December.

Betty Wood caught up with her ahead of the show’s opening to discuss the alchemy of her work, and why her images pay as much tribute to their medium as they do their subjects.

“Using black and white film makes sense to me
and it’s what I prefer looking at. It gives a sense of drama and mystery”

Betty Wood: In addition to being an artist yourself, you also work at one of the world’s most respected private galleries. How did your career as a photographer evolve?

Carla Borel: I discovered photography in my 20s whilst I was working as a croupier, mainly taking pictures of my friends and the places I visited. After a while, I started messing around with black and white film and with things that were a bit more abstract. I wanted to learn more about photography so I bought a second hand SLR camera in 1998, the same one I still use. No one showed me how to use it so I made a lot of silly mistakes at first – incorrectly loading the film; ripping the film right out of the canister – [I had] no idea about aperture and shutter speeds etc. Everything came out wrong, but I persevered and started to see good results.In 2000, I started working at the French House pub in Soho; this literally changed my life over night. I was surrounded by all these exciting, creative people – everyone was an actor, a writer, a photographer or an artist – and they welcomed me into the Soho community with open arms. Pretty much all the photographs in my show at the Society Club were taken during the seven years I worked at the French pub. It was a hugely influential period of my life and when I decided that perhaps I could make a career as a photographer.

Betty: You reference photographers such as John Deakin, Lisette Model and David Bailey as influences – what it is about their work that interests you? 

Carla: John Deakin, it’s the people he photographed in the 50s and 60s that I’m interested in. He captured anamazing time in British cultural history with his shots of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and other Soho literary and art world characters. His photographs are stark with high contrast extremes.

Lisette Model because she was so uncompromising and direct. I also love the photography of Neil Libbert, Lee Friedlander and Ida Kar.

Betty: How have you translated these influences into your own photography?

Carla: John Deakin and Ida Kar have been most influential to me. With my Stillsoho series I was trying to document a new generation of Sohoites. I wanted to capture as much as I could of the people around me. Of particular resonance for me are the photographs I took of Sebastian Horsley, who is very sadly no longer with us.

“I like loading film in my camera; I love
the noise my Pentax makes, and I love the permanency of negatives”

Betty: Does the fact you’ve shot these images in black and white tapped into an idea of recreating a sense of history? How does your treatment of “time” inform your work? 

Carla: Using black and white film makes sense to me and it’s what I prefer looking at. It gives a sense of drama and mystery. I have tended to avoid photographing people who dress in a very fashionable or very “now” way.  [I prefer people] who have a classical, ageless look, so perhaps that has something to do with my photos looking like they’re from another time.

I’m also a bit old fashioned. I very reluctantly tried to make the transition fromanalogue to digital a few years ago and it just didn’t work for me. I like loading film in my camera; I love the noise my Pentax makes, and I love the permanency of negatives.

Betty: What’s the most important element you consider for you when taking a photograph? 

Carla: Available and practical light sources. When I took Lexington Street, the street lamps weren’t quite enough so I was lying on the ground for a little while waiting for a car to pass so that it’s headlights would light Mandana Ruane (manager of the Academy Club) and Michael Smith (Culture Show presenter).Betty: What project will you be working on next?

Carla: Currently I’m working on a series of portraits of artists that are being published in F22 magazine each month.

This is great as I get to spend more time with my subject – I really get to know them, and it’s more intimate. But I would like to do more street photography as this is what I’m really passionate about.

Stillsoho runs from 11 December through January at Society Club from 11 December