‘Vivid Dreams and Fragile Machines’
I recently had the opportunity to view the work of, American fashion and fine art photographer, Brooke Shaden. The solo exhibition, ‘Vivid Dreams and Fragile Machines’, was held at Gulf Photo Plus in Dubai.
Although Shaden initially studied film and literature, her passion now lies in creating new worlds through photographs. She aims to create surreal and fantastic alternate realities that draw the viewer in, making them forget they are looking at a photograph. ‘Vivid Dreams and Fragile Machines’ is inspired by fairy tales.
There were eleven photographs in the exhibition all in a square frame format. Interestingly, Shaden, herself, is the subject in many of the photographs. While many of the images contained bold bright colours, usually the subjects clothing, there was an overall feeling of darkness too. The backgrounds were stark, with dramatic, threatening clouds in the skies. The images have a painterly and dream like quality, possibly due to the colours used and also due to editing work, which Shaden carried out. Post-production she boosted colours, added clouds and overlaid textures to the images.
Of the eleven photographs on view there were four that interested me and I returned to study them further.
‘Running from Wind’, depicts two young women, dressed in long, flowing, pale coloured dresses, which may be nightgowns. One is wearing a coat and one is carrying a lantern. They are running away from the camera whilst looking over their shoulder. Their hair is blowing, perhaps from the wind or because they are moving at speed. They are running through long grasses, towards what looks like trees or a forest ahead. The light is bluish and the lantern is lit. Together, this gave me the impression it is either early morning or nightfall.
The immediate question that springs to mind is, ‘Why are they running?’ The fact that they are looking over their shoulders suggested, to me, that they are running from someone or something. They are wearing night-clothes outdoors, this could also suggest that they have had to make a hasty retreat or escape from somewhere or something. The clothing and lantern suggest that this is a different era. My overall impression of the photograph was that it has a sense of urgency, panic and unease.
‘Invading Homes’, shows a young man and woman running hand in hand across a hillside. The grass is yellow and appears dead or burnt. They are running towards the camera but their heads are turned away, looking behind them. While the man is dressed in shirt and trousers the female (Shaden) is dressed in a full-length blue dress, which is billowing around her. Again, the clothing of the woman suggests a time gone past. Overhead the sky has heavy grey clouds looming, through which a flock of blackbirds appears to have burst, as though through paper. Although the couple’s expression cannot be read I get the impression that they are frightened. Again, there is a sense of panic and urgency. This photograph raises questions. ‘From what or whom are they running?’ ‘Are the birds in pursuit or are they also being pursued’?
From a technical perspective it was interesting to find out that Shaden achieved the ‘punctured’ sky effect by photographing a piece of paper with a hole in it and then later blended it with the sky.
Vivid-Dreams-and-Fragile-Machines In this image a young woman stands with her back to the camera. She wears black tights and a simple brown tunic. The setting appears to be an isolated place, a moor or hillside? Her pose is ballerina-like with one leg behind and her toes pointed. Her arms are outstretched and she holds two large pieces of brown paper that resemble insect wings or leaves. In the distance the sky is grey, but above the girl the sky is lighter and brighter. I think the subject holds an innocent, child-like quality as it appears as though she is playing or dancing. Shaden’s work often contains fantasy elements, this teamed with the wings and playfulness in the image, made me wonder if the subject may possibly be a fairy or an elf?
‘What Keeps You Warm’ depicts a young woman amidst a desolate landscape. She is moving away from the camera. Her clothing is billowing which suggests she is moving at speed. She wears a dark red, wine coloured cape, over an identical coloured dress. The cape covers her head and shoulders and flows far behind her, beyond the frame edges. We see a glimpse of the woman’s pale face as she glances over her shoulder. The woman is bare foot, and her fingernails look stained with red. The use of the colour red throughout adds to the photograph’s dramatic atmosphere and implies a sense of danger.
The cloak is prominent and sparked thoughts of fairy tale characters such as Red Riding Hood and Snow White. I read late that Shaden, in fact, photographed the cloak several time and pieced it together to make it appear as long as it does. Overall, this photograph suggested to me a sense of urgency, unease and fear.
I enjoyed this exhibition and found it quite easy to view each image as a ‘story’. Being aware of Shaden’s intention and inspirations for this exhibition also helped me to ‘read’ each photograph, as did their titles, such as Running from Wind and Invading Homes.
Clarke, 1997, p30, discusses the importance of being aware of a photographer’s work and philosophy. He states that ‘every photograph is not only surrounded by a historical, aesthetic and cultural frame of reference but also by an entire invisible set of relationships and meanings relating to the photographer and the point at which the image was made.
Brook Shaden’s website is as follows
Clarke, G (1997) The Photograph New York: Oxford University Press