Brooke Shaden is a storyteller at heart. While her creative pursuits began with writing, she notes, “I’m extremely inspired by storytelling in any form that might take.” She remembers beginning to write as early as when she first started to read. By the time she was 11 or 12, she was taking these creative efforts seriously. “I would try to figure out the most artistic thing to do, so I would go climb trees with my little notebook and sit up there and write poetry,” she recalls.
Photographs © Brooke Shaden
From Writing to Filmmaking
In high school, Shaden spent much of her time writing short stories. “I was convinced that I would be either a writer or an English teacher, and I thought that those were going to be my two passions in life, so I continued writing and studying English,” she explains. Yet, a random filmmaking class during her senior year opened Shaden’s imagination to the process of making movies. She recalls, “I found it thrilling to run around with a video camera, and to see what stories I could tell through seemingly random symbolic images, and things of that nature.”
Just before setting off for college at Philadelphia’s Temple University, she made a last-minute decision to pursue filmmaking, in addition to English. “I got a degree in filmmaking, as well as in English literature,” she says, “but then I realized that I didn’t actually like the process of making films, and that’s how I ended up getting into photography.”
Describing herself during this time as being “extremely uncomfortable with talking to anybody at all,” Shaden became increasingly challenged by the social interaction required of filmmaking. “I found myself on all these film sets, and you had to quickly integrate yourself into the crew and get to know everyone. There was this element of being social that I just couldn’t handle,” she recalls. “That was when I picked up my camera, because I thought, ‘I can make a little tiny film in a single image, completely by myself without having to consult everyone about the decisions, and without having to interact with people.’ It was sort of my way of continuing to be a hermit, never leaving my apartment.”
Instead of internalizing her social discomfort, Shaden channeled it into photography. “I think that being shy, or anti-social, or whatever you want to call it—having that intense fear in my life—has been really good for inspiration,” she elaborates. “Just having a counterpoint of difficulty in your life helps you appreciate the pieces that are not difficult, allowing you to create art out of both aspects.”
Despite her formal arts education, Shaden is very much an autodidact in her creative endeavors, and she was determined to explore photography on her own terms. “I was very worried about copying, or being too influenced by someone else,” she says. “I really wanted to see what would happen if I went in without much of a frame of reference for what photography was supposed to be. I think that was extremely helpful in developing my own style and literally figuring out just what my imagination looks like.”
The inspiration for her very first picture sprang from an idea for a self-portrait, which she talked through at length with her husband, working backward to figure out what needed to happen to make her vision a reality. “My motivation going in was knowing that if somebody figured this out before, then certainly I could too, if I tried at it long enough,” she says.
The process hooked her from the start. She recalls, “I remember being so proud that I took a camera, and clicked a picture, and put it in Photoshop, and then something came out of that. I remember thinking, if I can do this in my tiny little bedroom, in my apartment, then think of the possibilities out there.”
Shaden was blessed with the same early confidence about her photography that she had experienced with other creative disciplines, “Because, in general, I truly believe that you can do anything,” she says. “If you study it, if you’re committed to it, if you’re passionate about it, then why shouldn’t you? That’s how I’ve felt about all of my craft.”
The Hero’s Journey
While most of Shaden’s photography is inspired by her fascination with dualities, such as death and rebirth, beauty in decay, or darkness and light, another key influence is the literary motif of the Hero’s Journey, and the cyclical way in which stories often unfold. She describes this process as, “Watching a character start in one place, move from that place, and then come back a different person. That’s how I view photography,” she notes, “as this journey of a character who is experiencing something—whether it’s an entire situation, an emotion, something very personal or not—and you’re questioning how they are going to get through it.”
She differentiates between a reader’s experience with text, “being taken through that journey from the writer’s perspective,” and a viewer’s experience of a photograph, “which poses more questions rather than answers.”
This personal relationship with an image, and the potential for a viewer to add his or her own interpretation to the mix, is exactly what excites Shaden about photography. In contrast to film-making, Shaden generally plays all the roles—actor, director, designer, prop maker, editor, technician—developing characters by reaching back to her literary background. “I think it’s so interesting to take a single word or a phrase and branch that out into my understanding of it, or the cultural understanding, or the world experience, whatever it may be, and to create something from that,” she explains.
To embody the character her imagination has conjured, she pulls out all the stops, even to the point of discomfort. “I ask myself, ‘what does this particular character need, what camera angle does this character need, what colors, what location,’” she says. “My hope is that the character will almost seem to be the art director of the image I’m making. In turn, I hope that the viewer will see themselves in that character, so it’s all connected.”
Although she is most inspired by solitude, and natural elements such as water or the forest, Shaden notes, “I’ve also been very interested in cultivating inspiration no matter where you are. I try my best to go through exercises every day to train my imagination to be able to work on the spot, and I spend a lot of time staring at blank walls, challenging myself to not be inspired by external stimuli, but to really focus inward.”
Getting the Shot
When it comes to the photography, Shaden keeps her process basic. As a Sony Artisan, her camera of choice is the Sony A7RII, with a Zeiss Loxia 50 mm f/2 Planar T* lens, a Sony Wireless Remote Commander, and a 3 Legged Thing Travel Tripod. “That’s my go-to setup, I don’t really use anything outside of that,” she says. “I never, ever use lighting, just all natural light. I’ll usually go out before the sun comes up to get magic hour blue light outside, or I’ll use window light inside.”
She prefers shooting wide open, almost always keeping her aperture between f/2.8 and f/4. “Then I’ll adjust my shutter speed based on whether there’s motion in the picture or not,” she says.
Given her preference for magic-hour lighting, Shaden’s shutter speed often tends to be slow. “But, I’m not afraid of bumping up my ISO,” she points out. “On average I would go to about ISO 2500, but I’m not worried about pushing it beyond that. I like to think I have a handle on the technique, but I’ll do whatever I need outside of that to get the shot,” she adds. “It’s worth more for me to be able to take the picture in a fulfilling way, then it is to worry about specs.”
Post-production is another essential step in her workflow, but Shaden is equally relaxed about these technical details. “It depends on the complexity of the composite,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll spend upwards of 40 to 50 hours on an image and sometimes as little as 30 minutes, but I’d say 2 to 4 hours is average for me.”
After doing the compositing, she moves on to work with the color, lighting, and texture in that order. “For me, it’s all about whether the image matches what I see in my imagination,” she says. “For the most part, I go into images knowing what I want them to look like. A lot of the time, it’s pretty easy. I’ll suddenly see the image match what I had seen in my imagination. Which is great,” she adds.
From Single Image to Serial Work
While she is prolific in her creation of stand-alone pictures, Shaden recently expanded her focus to working in series. “I’ve always created very, very frequently, and I have over 800 images out there,” she points out. “So, I wanted to do something different in some fundamental way.”
Her first foray into this style of working was for a series called Fourth Wall. “It was a little room that I built with four walls, and no windows or doors, so that people were trapped inside. Each image was shot looking down into the room from above, and each room was filled with a different material,” she says.
When working on a series, Shaden thinks more conceptually, and in greater depth, “so that each image really has a lot of layers that need to be dissected. I also work more physically on a series, rather than compositing as much in PhotoShop.” This intense planning and labor has paid off in terms of public reception. In January 2017, Shaden exhibited Fourth Wall in a New York gallery and, “People really took their time with the work, and looked at all of the details. It was a much more rewarding experience,” she says.
Shaden is now working on a new series based on our relationship with death. “I’ve always had a lot of issues in my life with fear, particularly fear of death,” she explains, “and I wanted to confront this in my art so I would physically have to confront it in my life. I’m trying to make it more normal, more mainstream, and trying to come to terms with what it means to be human.”
After 11 months of planning and development, she just began the photography for this series, in March 2018. “I’ve been planning every week since April 2017, to really think about it and try to make it perfect,” she says. “And that’s not to say that I had images in mind then, but just an idea that blossomed, and that I let marinate for a little while.” With 11 images currently planned, she is aiming for the final series to contain 15 to 20 photographs, which she hopes to start test printing by fall.
Like most young photographers cultivating a career today, social media has played an essential part in Shaden’s creative development, although she is quick to note that her approach has shifted over time. “A lot of my interaction with the Internet was extremely selfish to begin with,” she says. “I started out a little bit obsessed with the culture of sharing and what comes with that—wanting to get accolades and start conversations.”
During her first year making and posting pictures, one particular conversation became the catalyst for Shaden to reconsider her online behavior. “I remember sharing a photo that I felt didn’t get quite the reception I was hoping for,” she recalls, “so I removed the image about an hour after I put it up.” A few days later, she received a call from a friend asking where the image went. “I said, ‘Oh, nobody liked it so I deleted it.’”
It was then that her friend confided she had found the image to be extremely beneficial in lifting her spirits after a recent miscarriage. “I was so worried about me, and the reception of this image, that I didn’t think about how other people were affected,” Shaden admits, “or the fact that people won’t always tell you how they’re affected by something. It made me realize that I did not want to be selfish about my images, so I started to step back from social media in that way, and I made my mission all about taking the focus off myself and placing it on the viewer.”
While it took her a few years to fully transition to her altruistic goal, “That experience was a revelation in how I use social media,” she says, “to make it more about helping others, and putting a hand out for anyone to take if they need it.”
Shaden currently averages about 30 minutes a day on social media, “but a little bit less if I’m busy with other things, and a little bit more if I’m actively sharing my thoughts on a particular topic,” she notes. “I think many people post a lot just to try and keep engagement up, but I’ve been trying to pull back a little, and I try to do it really purposefully.” She will only post when she is committed to being there for people. “If I’m going to put something on Instagram or release a blog post, I want to know that I’m going to be at my computer, committed to reading the responses, and having a genuine conversation, and not just letting people respond to a vacant computer screen.”
Promoting Passion and Giving Back
As her career has evolved, Shaden has shown a similar commitment to connecting with her growing audience offline, through speaking engagements and workshops, such as her upcoming Promoting Passion Convention.
Yet, rather than focusing on the external constructs of digital mastery or teaching technical skills, she emphasizes looking within to cultivate one’s sense of self. “You can learn techniques anywhere, and so many different techniques will work for the same thing, that I don’t feel so compelled to teach my techniques,” she says. “While it’s fun, and people learn a lot, it’s not what people need. What people really need is to be given permission to express their weirdest selves.”
During many workshops and events, Shaden notes, “It can be like pulling teeth to get people to open up and share part of themselves. I think this is a really big problem for a lot of people,” she says. “We tend to want to get the latest gear, and go to the best locations, and have the best models, and clothes and props. That’s all great,” she adds, “but at some point, this can stop being about you, and it starts becoming just about all these elements that happen to be placed in front of you. So, I like to just cultivate the sense of self, the sense of awareness from within, instead of looking outward.”
This teaching method has been particularly well received in a series of charity workshops Shaden has held for survivors of human trafficking. “In the countries where I’ve taught with The Light Space charity workshops, the culture is just so different,” she says. “It’s a culture of myths, and a culture of imagination, where you are encouraged to say how you feel, to speak your truth, and to tell people—this is me, and this is how I’m going to represent that. These students are just so open to being who they are, and that is such a beautiful thing,” she concludes. It’s something that we need a lot more of in this culture.”
Last spring, Shaden was a featured artist in B&H’s Documentary Video Series Women of Influence. Follow this link to watch the film, and learn more about Brooke Shaden at the following URLs:
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