Today’s interview is with Brooke Shaden!
Thank you for being here with us today, Brooke! I’d love to start off by asking what motivated you to pick up a camera and shoot originally?
Thanks for allowing me to be part of this! So much appreciated.
My motivation for picking up a camera was largely to be able to, in some way, satisfy an itch that I have had my whole life. I love creating in any way possible. I love telling stories by any means. A camera simply allowed me to do that in a way that was personally satisfying. I started photography at the very end of 2008 when I was graduating from college. I had been studying film and English, but somehow still photography clicked in a way that the other artforms had not. I was able to get my ideas out quickly and efficiently, and by myself, which I loved.
On your blog you mention that you “think it is important to have goals; to have something to strive for and look forward to.” When you began your photography journey as a film student at Temple University, did you have a certain goal in mind/were you striving to get to a specific point either in your skills or career? Or has your journey evolved into something different than you originally planned? Tell us a little about your path after graduating.
Oh yes, my path has changed course many times. Before college I wanted to be a writer. During college I wanted to be a cinematographer. After college I turned to photography. But even then, when I graduated from college, I did not have grand plans of turning my life into one centered on photography. I stayed in the film world for a year before fully transitioning, working as a receptionist and a legal assistant for film companies. I try to always let my passions guide me, and when I realized how miserable I was at my “day job” and how much joy photography brought me, the decision seemed simple. Simple enough to make the decision, not as simple to act on! But still worth pursuing with all my might.
You are a fine art photographer–can you define this for us and share when and how you decided that this was the right genre for you?
For me, the discovery of fine art photography was born out of stubbornness. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, plain and simple. Fine art photography is nothing more than creating personal work and then finding the right market for that. I create for myself first and foremost and then I hope that someone will buy it. I had an experience early on in my photo journey where someone offered to be my business partner where we could sell my images on posters/calendars, etc…but that wasn’t the path I wanted to take. I wanted to create art for myself and by myself, and to have a dialogue with others who appreciate the artistic process. I don’t mean for that to sound high and mighty, only that I knew simply what I wanted out of a career and I did everything that I could to follow that.
You talk about how important the “why” is in photography: why you decide to create a specific picture or world. When you are in the conceptualization stage, do you have a fully planned vision for your image, or does the story evolve along with the process?
When I create I almost always have a detailed plan for the image. I know what steps I need to take to shoot it, I know what I want it to look like after editing; I know poses and colors and sets beforehand…but if something goes wrong, I try to adapt. I am stubborn, and I am a planner. I like to know that I’ve given thought to as much as possible before shooting so that the final image is one that I can say, with authority, I am proud of, whether it turns out as I intended or not.
You state that you didn’t get into photography to sell things, but got into photography to inspire. For so many of us that are in business, inspiration can be tricky when we work specifically with clients who expect certain things from us. What advice can you give to someone who feels trapped creatively by the constraints of business?
I think the thing to remember is that everyone feels the constraints of business, whether you are a businessperson or an artist. It is something that we simply must see as a creative challenge. The more our business can be turned into something that we nurture and love, that we treat as creatively as a new image we’re creating, then it can be something that fuels us. There are things that I must do for business that really get me down. I might want to go out shooting, but I have a business to run, and so I am stuck. But instead of feeling stuck, I try to motivate myself.
I motivate myself by realizing that without the business end of things, I wouldn’t be able to make time for creating the art that I love. Instead of seeing business as something that steals my time and brings me down, I see it as something that I am hugely grateful for. I might not always want to spend a morning answering emails, but gosh darn it, those emails are the lifeblood of my life. They are people wanting to connect and opportunities waiting to be taken advantage of.
Each one of the models in your images seems to fit your stories and themes so perfectly. When searching for a subject to photograph, do you have a specific character or look already in mind? How involved are your subject’s in the start-to-finish process? Do you fill them in on the final vision for the image before the shoot to help them get into character?
The funny thing about my models is that so many of them are just friends! They are people that I’ve grown to love and have used when they fit an image. In a lot of my pictures, the model is not the focal point: the character is. I see a huge difference here. I pose my models very specifically, I change facial expressions in Photoshop, and I do what needs to be done to create a character out of the model at hand. I do always tell my models the meaning behind and image, and especially the emotion of it, but a lot of my images are anonymous where faces are not shown. This allows the body to do the talking.
“Sometimes our biggest downfall is that we believe the art we imagine is better than the art we will produce.” What advice can you give to someone that feels hindered by this?
To me, the solution to this problem is quite simple. If you never try, you never know. If you only imagine but never create, you have no chance of seeing what you are capable of. It is one thing to dream, and to dream big, but it is another thing entirely to make those dreams reality. If you keep all of that amazingness in your head, and it is your goal to make that a reality, then you are failing not only yourself but those around you. I believe that the only way to fail is to not try. If you try and do not succeed, that is not failure; that is progress.
Where do you get your inspiration for an image or story and how do you keep your thoughts organized before, during, and after the actual shoot? Can you share a specific image with us and fill us in on the process from conceptualization to the finished product?
Yes absolutely! I just created a mini-series of images in which I shot them on a black background and then made it look like I was in the clouds. These images had to be planned beforehand in order to achieve the final look. I always start with my dreams, and I don’t mean literally. I mean that I always have stories in my mind and I have to choose one to focus on. Once I understand the character, I can more easily build a world for that character.
For these images, I wanted to show someone who was floating, falling, or walking on clouds. All three, perhaps. These images were brought about by my love of dreaming, and so my concept, or goal, was to show the idea of dreams in a concrete, visual way: hence the clouds. After planning the images, I had to gather the right shots to complete it. This included getting shots of clouds on a lucky trip in the air to Seattle one day. Further, I had to photograph myself on the dark background to get the pose right. I also photographed some fake snow for one of the images to make up a “cloud wig”.
In Photoshop I went through the steps of compositing in order to blend all of these images together. I felt that each had a slightly different feeling to them, and so they stayed together as a 3-part series.
You mention that you love the editing process as much as actual photography. How much of your story comes to life during the editing phase?
I would say that to anyone watching, the image comes together in editing. But for me, the image comes together before I shoot. I try to envision everything before I ever click a camera. Clicking the actual camera allows me to make sure I have what I need for editing, and in editing I put everything together to form the world I had envisioned.
That said, nothing that I do is digitally based. I combine images together using very, very basic Photoshop tools and leave it at that. I think that, perhaps, I use simple tools in Photoshop in interesting ways. It is often very strange for me to hear others calling me a digital artist, when everything that I do is photographically based, and my editing is so simple…but that is exactly why I hate labels. Because in the end, it just doesn’t matter…it’s all good fun for the artist, and the end product is still, at its core, the concept.
You began with creating self-portraits. What encouragement can you give the rest of us to step out from behind the camera and tell our own personal story through the lens?
This is my biggest argument for self-portraiture: if nothing else, it can teach you two things. One is how to pose models. It is extremely handy to be able to feel what it is like to pose and then be able to relay those newly gained directional skills to a model. Second is this: anyone can be a character. Perhaps not everyone can be a “model” by industry standards, but who cares about that anyway, right? Everyone can be a character. So embrace yourself, what you look like and what you can bring to the table.
Can you share your top three favorite images you’ve created and the story behind each of them and why they mean so much to you?
Sure! The first is titled “Between” and is a self-portrait in which a bed lies in two places at once. I am a dreamer through and through, and this image was meant to symbolize the dream-state, the in-between world that we experience so often when we are drifting between waking and dreaming. The character is in two places at once, a phenomenon I often feel myself, and so this image is personal to me.
The next image is titled “The Tide That Takes Us”. This image is based on fears. I have a fear of the ocean, and so I wanted to shoot in the ocean to overcome that. I put my camera in underwater casing and laid down at the ocean’s edge. As a wave would come up and splash on the subject I would click, but would, as a result, be covered in a wave just after. That was a big step in confronting my own fears and this image is part of a larger series titled “Fears & Fairytales”. I love the idea that any fear can be dreamed away, even if momentarily, by a fairytale.
Finally “The Research Laboratory”: this image was created with many things in mind: my love of storytelling, hence the books, and my love of fairytales, hence the character, distorted. I love shooting on a dark backdrop, I love antique colors, and to add a bit of whimsy makes this, visually, an image that I feel very connected to.
What goals do you have for your photography that you have yet to achieve or visions that are still waiting to materialize? How do you constantly keep your creativity flowing, or do you find that you ever struggle to come up with a new, distinct vision for your art?
Oh dreams…I have so many! I want to, first and foremost, always be inspired and I want to inspire others. I believe that making yourself happy is the key to doing both of these things. I am constantly laying out goals for myself for the sole purpose of spreading happiness. I would love to publish a coffee table book of my images, a portfolio that I can have and distribute. I am very eager to do more charity work. I am currently working on building a school of photography in Kolkata India for survivors of human trafficking, and I’ll be traveling back to teach for the 2nd time in February next year (very excited!!!). I am starting a new website for my blog which will also promote charity work, with the aim being to promote passion in all people.
Thank you so much for sharing your time and talent with us!
Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this!
Also, don’t forget to grab a copy of Brooke’s book, Inspiration in Photography. It’s incredible and so worth the read (and no, we didn’t get paid to say that).