weird, creepy and entirely awesome: brooke shaden photography


There's a saying in my homeland of Trinidad --  "to ketch a vaps" -- that I can't help thinking about after this past weekend.  The closest way I can describe what the phrase means is to equate it to when Americans say they "got a wild hare" (or is it "wild hair"?).  For a more formal definition, a very distinguished uncle of mine describes it as a "mental aberration" -- a phrase used when you suddenly do something that seemingly completely defies any sort of logic or reason as to why you did it.

This past weekend, I "ketch a vaps," flew to Dallas and attended a Brooke Shaden photography workshop.

There are several reasons why my doing this made little or no sense.  First of all, my friend Maile introduced me to Brooke's work only a few weeks ago -- otherwise, I would've never known anything about this incredibly talented artist.  Secondly, Brooke's work is dark, mysterious and creepy (Brooke's words, not mine), and while it is unquestionably stunning, it's very different from the kind of work that I do -- I'm all about love and light, man; "moodiness" never enters my equations.  Thirdly, while I'm certainly intrigued by fine art photography, I don't really have huge aspirations to become a fine art photographer myself.

But as I mentioned last week, I'd become somewhat bored with my work.  And while I Photoshop every photograph I take, I know that I barely scratch the surface of what Photoshop can do.   So even though it's unlikely that I'll ever feature a photograph of a woman with smoke coming out of her head or a girl balancing an upside-down umbrella in her hair or a man walking sideways down a country lane here on Chookooloonks, I figured that any woman who could create these believable images and do so with such creativity would certainly have something to teach me. 

I'm happy to report that I was right.


The 2-day workshop took place in a huge warehouse, filled with all kinds of crazy spaces and rooms -- there was photographic eye candy everywhere.  There were about 15 of us in attendance, of all ages, races, and backgrounds (I so love learning in a diverse group).  Brooke had also hired models and brought props for us to shoot, but we didn't get to do that until the afternoon of the first day.  First, once Brooke greeted everyone, she sat us all down and went over the philosophy behind her art and her business, suggesting questions we ask ourselves in order to hone our own strategies (some of which I can't believe I hadn't asked myself before, and you know how I love a bit of introspection).  Then she described her process of creating her images step-by-step, leaving no questions unanswered. 

And then?  Girlfriend got to work.


Now, please excuse my language in this sentence, but I really can't think of a better way to describe it:  Brooke Shaden knows her shit.   In many ways, it felt like learning all of her trade secrets:  she quite literally shared absolutely everything she does to create her wild insane images.  When we peppered her with questions, about everything from her Photoshop techniques to how she gets her work shown in galleries to how she prices her work to how she licenses her images, she answered every single question patiently, clearly and confidently.  Her generosity with her knowledge was truly limitless.

Then it was time for us to photograph our own setups with models who had been brought in for the day.  And this is the point where I must stop and express my gratitude to these four young people who worked so tirelessly that day:  all 15 of us photographed each one of them, asking them to do crazy things.  At various moments throughout the day, at the direction of one photographer or another,  I saw them climb ladders, get tied up in ropes, pose barely-dressed and curled up in fetal position in a dungeon-like basement (and it was cold), and even one young woman ended up getting soaking wet, fully-clothed in a bathtub.  And each one of them was completely pleasant, good-natured and game to do anything we threw at them.  They were positively fantastic.  Here they are:










Aren't they awesome?

Anyway, so now that I've taken this course, I've been given so much to think about.  It occurs to me that not only does Brooke's work look very different from mine, her process is very different from mine -- and I do mean "different," without ascribing any judgment as to which process is better. 

For example, I tend to approach photography from the viewpoint that all the art I create happens the moment I shoot the camera:  while I certainly touch up my images in Photoshop, I'm considering all the light and shadow and art way before I squeeze the shutter.  To be honest, if I spend more than 2 minutes Photoshopping any particular photograph, I consider myself to have failed at capturing the art that I wanted.

Conversely, while Brooke clearly has a strong technical knowledge of her camera (seriously, I feel like I have good technical knowledge, and she definitely still taught me a few things), she really uses her camera simply as a tool to capture what she needs to do her real art -- and that art occurs in Photoshop.  When she's out shooting, she's really thinking about what she's going to do to the images in Photoshop, because her work is all about "compositing" all of the images together to make her final art.  She takes about 1 minute to capture the images she wants in the field -- literally! -- and then spends hours in front of the computer layering and masking and creating the final image she imagined. 

Differences aside, Brooke's education is in English and Filmmaking, and she views her current work as storytelling:  condensing the story that might normally be told in an entire book or film into a single still image.  And I love this concept.  Having taken her workshop, I feel like my mind has been opened to the possibility of composing a story with my camera -- including finding site locations, hiring models, scouting for props, just like she does.  It is akin, I suppose, to a nonfiction writer suddenly realizing that it might be fun to try his hand at another genre.  And while I might never create fantasy -- you know, images of women floating in front of windows, or growing flowers out of their heads -- it might just be time to start experimenting with fiction

So thanks so much, Brooke, for expanding my mind -- which is exactly the hope I had for myself when I signed up for your workshop.*  You did an amazing job, and I learned so much.  Also, I would be remiss if I didn't mention, after learning of your new tagline, "creating beauty from darkness" -- I feel like, at some level, we're kindred spirits.

*  As you can probably tell from everything I wrote in this post, I strongly recommend attending Brooke's workshops:  she really covers everything from business to social media to creating work like hers, and I think no matter what kind of photographs you like to shoot, you can learn something about the creative process from her.  That said, please note that this is not a workshop for the beginning photographer:  you definitely need to be fully comfortable in how ISO and aperture and shutter speed work and how they're related to each other, and it's probably a good idea that you're confident in shooting your camera in fully manual mode.  Furthermore, although Brooke doesn't require it (and she really is a confident and clear instructor), I would recommend that you've got at least a working knowledge of how "layers" and "masks" work in Photoshop before signing up.  I have a cursory understanding of how they work (I use both minimally), and I was a bit overwhelmed when we started editing the photos.  I'm sure I'll get more comfortable the more I play with it, but I do wish I had a bit more experience with both before I took the workshop.

That said, if you do sign up for any of her workshops (which, by the way, she teaches in cities around the world), I'm confident you'll love the content as much as I did.  Mind: expanded.