"Awake Asleep AC," 2008 Courtesy Emma Summerton

Emma Summerton Has "Landed"

Looking through the photographer's private stash of Polaroids ahead of her debut solo show at the Christophe Guy Galerie in Zurich.

by Laia Garcia-Furtado
Sep 4 2019, 8:48pm

"Awake Asleep AC," 2008 Courtesy Emma Summerton

It all began with a pair of shoes for the photographer Emma Summerton. A pair of Terry de Havilland shoes that she found at Camden, to be exact. Fresh out of school, and living in London after finishing her degree in Australia, Summerton had begun taking self-portraits with a Polaroid as a way to keep the creative experiments she was doing in college going. "I sent the pictures to Terry because I wanted more shoes to shoot," Summerton tells GARAGE. It worked, and soon after, de Havilland commissioned Summerton to shoot a lookbook. "I thought, maybe I'll get a shoe campaign, maybe I'll get some work out of this, because it's hard when you're starting out, but I never did," she says laughing. Although that's not entirely true, the lookbook caught the eyes of the editors at Dazed, who commissioned a series of self-portraits for the magazine, the rest, as they say, is history. In the two decades since, Summerton has become one of the most in-demand fashion photographers. Her images are instantly recognizable for possessing an ineffable feeling of fantasy, though they are rooted visually in reality. Like looking in a mirror that is ever so slightly distorted, but the vision looking back at you is the one you'd rather be. The ideal self you didn't know you could be.

Now, she is revisiting those early Polaroids for the first solo show of her work at the Christophe Guye Galerie in Zurich, which runs until November 23rd. Alongside her well-known portraits with the shoes, the show features many of Summerton's private Polaroids, like "visual love letter" she would share with her partner at the time, also a photographer. Looking back through this work ("some of it's pretty raw and racy and naked") has not been without its surprises. "I've learned that I've grown up a lot since I took the pictures," Summerton says laughing, "and that I'm still quite shy!"

"I want to get over myself, but this is who I am. At the end of the day, I'm actually not an extrovert even though I'm having an exhibition that's a bunch of self-portraits." She adds, "I think some of them are funny, I don't take myself that seriously. It's kind of got a lightness, a sexiness, a fun-ness, and I think that's one of the things I love about them, actually." Of course, those are the things we love about Summerton's work too. She sat down with GARAGE to talk through some of the finer details of her show, and that time she hung out with a bunch of Druids during a solstice.

Emma Summerton Polaroid Landed
"TdH on the Phone," 2004 Courtesy Emma Summerton

When did you first become interested in photography?

I've thought about this a lot over the years. Growing up, my family was really into—not so much photography as an art—but image-making. My grandfather took Super 8 and slides of us growing up, and then we'd have nights at their house where we'd set up the projector and he'd talk us through the pictures. Just the way they evoked memories and brought us together in conversations about things that happened before we were born, it was kind of beautiful and I think that's where my romanticism with image making came from. But then [I went] to art school, and I wanted to paint really, but I just ended up falling in love with photography.

Do you ever paint, just as a thing you do for yourself?

I just started to paint. I just had a story out in German Vogue a couple months ago now, where I painted over photos, so I've started mixing the two together. It's actually so good for my brain to do that, and it makes me think about photography differently.

Was your first camera a Polaroid?

No, it was probably like a Kodak snappy camera. Growing up I had tons of cameras—I mean, it was the '70s and '80s, we were taking pictures of everything. But, I think the first camera I had when I became an art student, I actually found on the front fence of an apartment that I lived in, in a camera bag with a tin of weed and no ID or anything. I had no money, so for me it was like, "Oh my God, here's my camera. And I can get really stoned and play with it." I still have it. (laughs)

Emma Summerton Landed Polaroids
"Avebury Landing," 2005 Courtesy Emma Summerton

What do you like working the most with Polaroid?

When I started doing this project, it just happened that I was in Miami—when was it?—it was 1999, that’s when I took the first pictures that are part of this project. I was there with my ex and we were location scouting, and we had a Polaroid camera to do it with.

I'd been thinking, you know, I've been living in London for a year. I was working with Fiona Banner, and trying to work out how to get into the fashion space. When you're not in it, it's pretty hard to get great clothes, great models, great stylists, a great team, and I was getting frustrated. I’d left Australia where I'd been an assistant for years, I had contacts there and could make things happen, but in London, I didn't know anybody. I decided to go back to what I did when I was at art school, which was do self-portraits so that I could experiment with ideas and light and vibes without having to subject another person to my inadequate (laughs) skills or communication ability. I was in this crazy love affair; he was a photographer, and the two things came together and became kind of visual love letters to him.

Is there a difference when you are taking these photographs as an experiment versus when you are working for a specific project?

Yeah, when I'm working like for a client or for a magazine, it’s really with the end game in mind. When I was taking pictures for my partner or for myself, there was no goal. It was whatever happened, happened. I'd like, take some mushrooms and paint myself silver and just mess around and play with ideas.

Did those experiments ever inform other ideas that ended up becoming part of your commercial work?

You know, it's always remained pretty separate. It is a bit like a split personality, I think, between the two.

Emma Summerton Landed Polaroids
"Silver Dress," 2004 Courtesy Emma Summerton

Where did “Landed,” the name for the show come from?

When I was shooting, [I’d] put the Polaroids back in the boxes and label them like “first choices,” “second choices,” “silver snake skin shoe,” “Vegas”, blah, blah, blah. It’s kind of like a diary in a way. And I actually found one that said “Landed.” A friend of mine commissioned me to do this story when he was creative director at a magazine in Australia. I've known him since I was 21, I think? He'd seen the Polaroids and he asked me if I wanted to do a story and I could just do anything I wanted.

So I said, let’s go to Avebury in England where the stone circles are. He put me together with a stylist, and I decided I was gonna paint myself silver because I'd been doing that quite a bit: "The Silverwoman" character. Then when we got down there I was like, oh God, I didn't think about the fact that I'm going to be outside in a public place, practically naked, painted silver in high heel shoes. I thought, "well I'm here, I'm just going to have to do it.” And, the stylist was kinda laughing and I was laughing.It turned out that it was the summer solstice, so there were a bunch of pagans down there celebrating the solstice in crazy costumes; and, some of them were painted green with capes and head dresses and I thought, “I just look like a normal person.” So, we spent the weekend shooting amongst all these Druids (laughs), in Avebury.

But the whole idea behind it was an ancient place and an alien landing. A lot of my personal work revolves around the idea... I guess of other life forms, being out of your body, coming back to your body, different realities. So it's kind of about falling out of the sky and landing wherever you are and making the most of it, I guess.

Emma Summerton Landed Polaroids
"Landed," 2005 Courtesy Emma Summerton
September 8, 2019