Brooke Shaden was born in March of 1987 in Lancaster, PA, USA. She grew up near the “Amish Country” until attending Temple University. Brooke was photographically born in December 2008 after graduating from Temple with two degrees: film and English. She now resides in Los Angeles, CA, USA with her husband and two cats.
She began creating self-portraits for ease and to have full control over the images, and has since grown into a self-portrait artist. Self portraiture for her is not autobiographical in nature. Instead, she attempts to place herself within worlds she wishes we could live in, where secrets float out in the open, where the impossible becomes possible.
Brooke works to create new worlds within her photographic frame. By using painterly techniques as well as the square format, traditional photographic properties are replaced by otherworldly elements. Brooke’s photography questions the definition of what it means to be alive.
Please Note: Some photos featured in this interview are marked as NSFW (not safe for work).
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I always envisioned myself as a writer. I used to spend countless hours writing in my journals and thinking up seemingly witty and deep poems, or so my 9-year-old self thought! When I got a little bit older I wanted to be a novelist or a poet, or even a journalist as long as it meant I could write. When I was in my senior year of high school I discovered the world of video and never looked back. Filmmaking and visual storytelling became my passion.
When did you become interested in photography? What was it that sparked your interest?
I actually began photography in high school with a black and white film photography class, but in truth, I hated it. I put my camera down and vowed never to pick it up again. It wasn’t until I graduated from college when I was 21 years old that I decided to pick up my camera once more and give digital photography a try. I figured I had nothing to lose, no teachers telling me what to do, and some free time before I entered the adult working world.
Where do you find inspiration?
Everywhere, quite literally, but more specifically I am inspired by the seemingly impossible, the ordinary turned extraordinary, fairy tale characters in dark worlds…The list is endless. I have always been fortunate to have an overactive imagination, and I have always treasured that. I grew up thinking that with an imagination, anything was possible. My imagination is as real to me as anything else, and I think when someone adopts that mindset there is no stopping the inspiration from flowing. I am inspired by nature, and all of the creatures that come with it. I am inspired by darkness, especially where there a hint of light. I am inspired by sadness, as it makes us search for what makes us happy. I am inspired by death, in the hope that we might value life even more.
From start to finish for a photo, how long on average would you say your process is? (for conceptualizing, shooting, photoshop, etc)
Truly it varies quite a lot, but lately my process has been taking longer than ever. It is funny, I think most photographers try to make their workflow shorter to allow for more creating time, but with me it is the opposite. I started out proud that I could create a photograph in 30 minutes, but now I look back at those days and chuckle because I had it all backwards. Now I want to spend tons of time on a single image, because I think it lends more meaning to that picture in the end. Lately I have been conceptualizing for a month or so per picture, though working on several at once. I am taking time to get perfect props and build little sets, and then the shoot is only about 15 minutes or so because that part is the quick part. Once you have everything conceptualized, there is little to do on set other than place your model and props, then snap the picture. Editing can be quick but I always try to stretch it, not only because it is my favorite part but because I don’t want to miss any little thing. I typically spend about 15 hours editing a photograph these days. All in all, I would say my process is about 30+ hours per photo in recent times, and before that it was about 15 hours per photograph in all.
Do you normally sketch a concept/photo before you shoot it? (sketch below as well as some behind the scenes photos)
I sure do! And I am happy to share one with you, which of course is worth laughing at I am a stick figure girl all the way, and when I try to draw anything else it looks like a great blob monster with weird wobbly lines running through it.
How important is Photoshop in your work?
It is hugely important because it allows me to take an image beyond reality. It is my tool of choice to transform a picture into my imagination; not just what my imagination sees, but into my imagination completely. My photographs are my best representation of what my imagination looks like.
I need to know! How many layers do your PSD files have on average?
Oh goodness, it gets a little crazy over in Brooke-land. If I am working on a simple image, I might only have about 10 layers or so. But if I am working on an in-depth picture, like some from my recent series, I could have over a thousand layers. That is when I have to take a step back, save multiple .PSD files so that my computer doesn’t crash, and take a breath. It got so bad one time with over one thousand layers that just to move a layer around the image meant a 30-second delay because my computer hated me so badly. After that, a new computer was a necessity
How do you usually light your photos? Do you use mostly natural light?
I use all natural or practical light in my images. 95% of the time I use the sun, or rather, the lack of the sun. I shoot before the sun has come up or after it has gone down, or on overcast days. If I am shooting inside I try to utilize window light, and if I cannot I will use whatever light is available: parking garage lights are always beautiful, lanterns, etc.
You have taught so many workshops Brooke, I hope one day to be able to attend one, they really look amazing.
What’s the best part about teaching workshops for you?
Thank you! There are two answers that stand out to me here about teaching workshops. I am a very empathetic person, so I pick up on emotions easily and feel them deeply, so when I see someone learning and experiencing growth, I am quick to feel the same way. There is nothing more fulfilling to me than to be a part of someone’s growth, because not only do I feel like I had some small hand in that, I feel it as well. It gives me goosebumps just talking about it because it means so much to me. At the end of every workshop I thank everyone for allowing me the opportunity to share what I do, and I always have to choke back tears while saying it. Without those who come to my workshops I would not get to experience that, or to travel and be inspired, so I owe my workshoppers so much.
What is your favourite thing about photography?
Being able to take control over the world that I want to live in.
Who is your favourite artist?
Just one? Oh you kill me! I’m cheating: Photographically I really love the work of Gregory Crewdson, his setups are so elaborate and magical. Painting: I love Bougereau, his works are so ethereal and beautiful. Filmmaking: Director Guillermo Del Toro with his amazing film Pan’s Labyrinth remain number one in my heart.
What is a word of advice you would give to any amateur photographer trying to make it into the real world?
Believe it is possible. I often say that my greatest talent is believing that nothing is impossible. If you believe that, there is no reason to stop trying. Success can only be achieved if you continue to chase it.
When you’re not doing photography, how do you usually spend your time?
I really like to hike and take little road trips around California to explore new areas, I find a lot of inspiration in that. I love reading (my favorite book is Dune by Frank Herbert) and have been watching Game of Thrones, which I find absolutely inspirational. Mostly I love cuddling with my little family, kitties included, and daydreaming.
Interviewed by Angela Butler