Carla Borel: Shooting The Soul of The Square Mile

The Notebook | 19th December 2018

The photographer credited with shooting the most iconic images of Soho in recent years reflects upon the changing face of the square mile, and the unique education of elegant hedonism

Carla Borel is a London-based portrait and fine art photographer who has a truly nomadic, and vibrant background–born in Paris, she was raised between the desert wonderland of Las Vegas and the quiet domesticity of a Hampshire village, and has had a number of lives, working as a croupier in Mayfair casinos; a bar tender at the legendary French House in Soho; a production assistant to legendary advertising photographer John Claridge, and as a gallery girl in London’s art world, working with influential curator Emma Dexter. It is safe to say that her photographic output is synonymous with London culture, in particular, the creative square mile of London’s Soho–in fact, her celebrated Stillsoho series has been described by Town magazine 'as one of the most iconic portrayals of London in recent years.'. Her photography addresses themes of transience, identity, community, isolation and loneliness, and often provides a candid window into a bohemian netherworld. Here, the photographer and Mortimer Hosue member, whose work has been published in the likes of AnOther Man, Harper's Bazaar and L'Uomo Vogue tells Maslow’s Notebook how childhood exposure to the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas set her out on her journey into the photographic medium, and explains why the fast-disappearing hedonistic aura of Soho provided her with an unparalleled education in the human spirit.

Can you remember what turned you on to the visual image?
I was always really into music and fashion, and loved looking at photographs. My mum used to be a Las Vegas showgirl and she had been in Diamonds are Forever, so there were her photos at home, and there was always an element of glamour about her. When I was 13 years old, she bought me a copy of Marie Helvin’s Catwalk: The Art of Model Style, and I loved looking at her pictures, and reading about her relationship with David Bailey. From that, I got into knowing about different fashion photographers, such as Helmut Newton, Steven Meisel, and Peter Lindbergh, and all the supermodels. This was the late-80s, early-90s. I was very much into the Liz Tilberis era of Vogue, The Face, and Sky, as well as more poppy mags like Smash Hits. My bedroom wall was covered in these images, and I was making a lot of collages at the time. I think what resonated a lot with me about these images was the glamour, excitement and fun of living in a city like London or New York. I didn’t know that I would end up becoming a photographer–I just knew I had to move to London and be part of that life in some way.

When did you start to realise your passion?
I didn’t start shooting until I was in my mid-20s, after I finally moved to London. I was working as a croupier at the time and desperate to do something different. The job sounds really glamorous, but it’s like a glorified factory job with no product at the end, while wearing a posh frock and getting insulted and sexually harassed by losing, and winning, gamblers. Photography gave me a respite from all that. I bought my first SLR from the Fox Talbot shop opposite Charing Cross station and taught myself how to use it. Nightmare. Loads of mistakes, and bad pictures. But I kept going. In the casino, I made a friend called Gayle and I used to photograph her a lot. I was trying to emulate the black-and-white fashion shots I’d been looking at as a teenager. Then I went to Soho, and that opened up a whole new world.

Tell us about your Soho series The Animals Were Beautiful, what inspired those images?
I was going through a difficult time in my life and I needed something to set me back on track, so I started a creative recovery programme called The Artist’s Way, from a book by screenwriter Julia Cameron. It is a very loving and nurturing process that encourages you to play. There are writing exercises and weekly tasks, and, at one stage, there’s a week of no reading at all, no books, newspapers, emails, nothing. I did allow myself a quick check of emails and social media in the mornings, but the rest of the day, no reading. Because I couldn’t sit with myself at home, I went out in the days a lot and instead of reading the papers on the tube, I took photos. I started to get some really good results and after the no reading week was finished, I continued. What had started as a way to pass the time, became an obsession. All the photos in the series are shot on an iPhone 5c. They are first taken in colour and then processed into black-and-white in Instagram, as if it was a darkroom. The photos are mainly of reflections, so they are not actually of the people in the shots. No one ever stopped me or questioned what I was doing. I think people thought I was taking photos of myself.

As someone who has documented the people of Soho for so long–how do you believe London's square mile is changing? 
I’m sad to say that Soho is changing for the worse–the bohemian side of things is slowly disappearing, and it is becoming generic and unremarkable. Hopefully, independent businesses like The French House, Maison Bertaux, The Coach and Horses, and Algerian Coffee Stores can still survive. Soho was where I found my community, my tribe; where I finally found somewhere I belonged. My life changed overnight when I started working at the French House. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by all these amazing people–artists, writers, publishers, actors. And in this pub, you’re not just a barmaid, you’re part of it all, so you meet everyone and get invited to everything. The elegant hedonism was so seductive and exciting. It was like a cultural utopia. I worked at the French House for about seven years. I still see Lesley, the owner, as my Soho mum, and all the staff I worked with are my family. I learnt so much there. The first couple of years was such an education, learning about all the previous regulars like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, and John Deakin, who photographed them all, and actually becoming friends with people like Harry Diamond and Oliver Bernard, who had been part of that scene in the 50s and 60s. All of this was hugely influential for my own work.

Image: Carla Borel
Interview: John-Paul Pryor