Fantastical characters, vibrant colors and shadowy settings come to life in Brooke Shaden’s latest series of haunting fine art photographs featured in her first solo exhibition in the Middle East.  Held in the Gulf Photo Plus gallery space in Alserkal Avenue, Vivid Dreams and Fragile Machines opened on November 6 inaugurating GPP’s fourth annual FotoWeekend, a four day photography event which comprises workshops and exhibitions by professional and amateur photographers in the Dubai Knowledge Village.

The Los Angeles based fine art and conceptual fashion photographer, Brooke Shaden, led a two day workshop on Storytelling and Compositing alongside her exhibition, teaching students her unique approach to creating narrative imagery, how to conduct an underwater shoot and a lecture on post-processing. It isn’t the first time Shaden has instructed workshops; she began lecturing in order to support her photographic career before finding representation with JoAnne Artman Gallery in California and Morren Galleries in the Netherlands.

Brooke Shaden began to experiment with photography after graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia with degrees in Film and English. Having free time before delving into the working world, she began shooting self-portraits, uninhibited by any constraints imposed upon her by her professors. She quickly found photography as a medium that could manifest her ideas and dreams in physical form more rapidly than in film, and more visually than in writing. This newly found freedom of expression allowed her to create the enigmatic and escapist worlds that imbue her imagination. She eventually began posting her photographs on Flickr, and the positive feedback she received from fans encouraged her to pursue photography full time.

Inspired by the simplicity and innocence of childhood fairy tales, Shaden seeks to create fantastical worlds she fashions from her surrealistic imagination, juxtaposing what is conventionally beautiful with what is real and often grotesque and sinister in nature. Through her photographs viewers are invited to explore new realms in which all aspects of life are uncovered and all mysteries are revealed, illustrating how reality is intricately intertwined with fantasy.

Portraiture is at the root of her photographic style as she encapsulates a narrative in a single frame, capturing characters in dramatized fateful moments, creating tension and emotionally charged scenes within a desaturated, dark and natural setting. She beautifies what others may find mysterious and brooding, balancing fragility with strength to convey different moments in life such as birth, rebirth, life and death, shaping them into complex and captivating scenes, helping her audience confront what it means to be truly alive.

Shaden relinquishes representing reality, choosing instead to delve into the depths of our interior landscapes, infusing her works with symbolism to create visually striking photographs. In works such as The Dream State and Vivid Dreams and Fragile Machines, subjects are featured defying the laws of gravity, captured flying and floating. In The Tumbleweed Tale and The Art of Wondering, the subjects are surrounded by white orbs emanating from their bodies, symbolizing their bright and animated imaginations.  She shoots models she believes the viewer will more easily connect to, often concealing the face to assist a larger audience in identifying with her work.

Waiving the standard photographic ratio, Shaden’s photographs are captured in the square format drawing the viewers’ gaze into the frame and out of the real world, helping them perceive an alternate reality. The ethereal quality of her work is achieved through the effect of minimal natural lighting, opting to shoot on overcast days just before sunrise or after sunset, in remote locations that range from the beach and desert to parks and forests.

Shaden’s creative process begins as she ponders the kinds of stories she would like to tell or can evolve from an idea of a specific color she would like to highlight or an interesting location she has scouted, creating stories around them. She is often inspired by the works of other photographers such as Gregory Crewdson, Tom Chambers and Jamie Baldridge, drawing from their photographs and developing and personalizing them as much as she can. After shooting, Shaden begins a process of compositing in Photoshop which can take two to seven hours on a single shot. She changes colors, intermingles images, and adds textures to produce that painterly, otherworldly and timeless quality that characterizes her unique style, inspired by Pre-Raphaelite painterly techniques.

"A Storm to Move Mountains" is a self portrait that evolved from Shaden’s vision to feature the color red. She contemplated what one associates with the color to develop the concept of a woman offering her life blood back to the mother earth to replenish it. The stormy winds mirror the female subject’s vitality and power, setting the tone of the piece. She obscures her face as she remains still and grounded in the center of the turbulence.
Shaden shot "Invading Homes" on an overcast day in L.A. with photographer and personal friend Brian Oldham. The concept behind the work was to create an interactive frame, which she realized by creating a hole in the sky of the scene. The characters in the photograph are fleeing the disintegrating frame to protect themselves, signifying their escape from their real life fears and struggles. The hole in the sky was achieved through photographing a piece of paper with a hole in it, which Shaden then proceeded to blend with the sky from the scene in Photoshop.
The idea behind "What Keeps You Warm" was inspired from the effect the color red had in a previous photograph Shaden had taken. With a red cloak in her possession she decided to emphasize the color again in a new shot, shooting the cloak several times and combining the images in Photoshop to create the illusion of a longer piece. The subject cloaked in red is then viewed as absconding the unknown and what she holds close to keep her safe.

Vivid Dreams and Fragile Machines is on view at the Gulf Photo Plus gallery space in Alserkal Avenue until December 15. For more information visit Tel: (+971) 4 380 8545

– Nadine Fattouh

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