In an interview I conducted with her last month, Lolo Bates emphasized the role of place in her work. She’s lived in three major cities so far, Chicago, London, and Los Angeles; all three, she said, have affected her photographs. Chicago was the first. She grew up in the area, surrounded, as she said, by “a lot of supportive artistic friends.” Their support, she explained, figured highly in her early artistic pursuits.
This included photography, but she only began to practice it very seriously when she began studying at the University of the Arts London. This came a few years into after she began working in fashion styling, as she explained to Polaroid Originals Magazine; initially, she had thought she would only study fashion, but as soon as she gave fashion photography a try, she fell in love with it. “London [was] where I really learned photography and how to be creative,” she told me. “My more raw and emotional work comes from there.”
Today, though, she is primarily based in Los Angeles, which to her is “full of crazy and beautiful inspirations, from my friends to the landscapes.” (She recently moved back to Illinois temporarily for health reasons, but she hopes to resume her usual workload soon.) To Bates, the Los Angeles area is packed with possibilities; an hour’s drive could take her to the desert or the beach or the mountains. Yet while place is certainly important in her work, that’s not to understate her strong creative vision. Her photographs are instantly recognizable. They are soft and evocative (forgive me for using so vague a word), often ghostly, often with a strong sense of the fantastical. People’s faces, rendered slightly out of focus and blurry by her choice of format, become spectral.
Some of her photographs seem to me to be almost haunted by something. What, I don’t exactly know, but the Polaroid format almost certainly has something to do with that. “Polaroid is really special to me,” she wrote. “The fact that you can only take a few shots per look changes the whole dynamic of the shoot […] Polaroid just has a nostalgic and magical quality to it.” There’s something necessarily hauntological about using a format, rendered technologically obsolete years ago, that once promised to render other formats obsolete.
Okay, enough post-structuralist digressions. My point is that Bates’s work is not the extremely technically correct digital fashion photography of Vogue or the New York Times style magazine, of tightly-controlled, rigidly hierarchical studio environments. It is something entirely, mercifully different, both in terms of aesthetics and the overall dynamic between the model and the photographer.
As far as aesthetics are concerned, Bates told me some of her influences included Deborah Turbeville and Sarah Moon, two fashion photographers who rose to prominence in the 1970s. She and Turbeville share a similar sense of the fantastical, but it is with Moon that she seems to exhibit the most kinship. Both began their careers elsewhere in the fashion industry — Bates as a stylist, Moon as a model. Both have worked extensively with the Polaroid format. And both have a keen ability to take advantage of blur and make their subjects so spectral.
Bates also discussed the role of the model in creating the dynamic of the shoot itself. She wrote that at first she did not intend to be exclusively a portrait photographer. Yet eventually, she said, “I found myself shooting a lot of portraits because I was always inspired by the model. They are always my muse.” She has said elsewhere that she prefers a small team and a more intimate setting, and her preferences clearly carry over to the finished product itself. Coexisting with all the spectral, haunted elements, there is a sense of deep connection with the setting and the model, of wholeness and completeness.