Brooke Shaden: Death, Beauty, and Light Through the Darkness

It is our fascinations and obsessions that help make our art. Brooke Shaden portrays themes such as death, rebirth, beauty in darkness, and dreams through her photography. I first discovered Brooke after Googling ‘fine art photo composite’. Seeing her images for the first time, I was struck by how genuine and well thought out they felt. I was transported to a dark secret world that felt real.

After some digging, I was pleasantly surprised by Brooke’s youtube videos. They revealed that although her work may be dark, Brooke herself was full of light. Always having fun throughout her art process. I’ve found that Brooke’s photographs have more emotion and more depth than other fine art photographs. It could  be due to the copious amounts of planning and work she puts in before shooting. As well as her strong clarity of vision.

Brooke from a very young age, has always been fascinated by death and the process of dying. I believe she sees a much deeper meaning in death than most people. Instead of thinking of death as just merely the end, she’s believes it can be intimate and potentially uplifting. She nurtures a contemplative viewpoint that is apparent in her work.


Unlikely Beginnings

Brooke started in a very unlikely place. She studied photography in high school, but was bored by the mundane subjects she was asked to shoot. In college, she studied filmmaking. Brooke then took jobs as a receptionist and a legal assistant for film companies. She realized she hated it! Revisiting photography from a much more creative place, she discovered that it was her true passion. Slowly but surely, she found a way to make a living as a full time artist.

When first starting out online, Brooke had many detractors and supporters. Despite it all, she was determined to keep making her art, no matter what. She is now represented by galleries in places such as New York and the Netherlands. Her best photographs are about stories and emotions. I once had the pleasure to speak with Brooke about a photograph she shot in Iceland. I wondered what had inspired her. She said it was the vastness and serenity of the landscapes. From that, I gathered that Brooke is able to see something special, internalize it, and then make it her own. She applies her own unique, beautiful, and melancholy vision. Brooke saw the Icelandic landscape and was able to infuse it with tension, magic, human agony and ultimately create art.

Fourth Wall

Recently I had the chance to ask Brooke about her Fourth Wall series. Here is her artist statement:

“We live in a world where isolation and false reality are easier to succumb to than ever before. Connecting with each other has never been easier, yet there is so much we’re not saying. In filmmaking, the fourth wall is the break between camera and viewer, where suddenly the viewer is aware that the film is, in fact, a film. When filmmaking becomes self-reflexive, in some way pointing out that the medium is only a construction, it allows the viewer insight into the process rather than the product. This idea has stuck with me since I attended film school, often wondering what the result would be if we as individuals knocked down the fourth wall between each other, letting in the truest glimpse of ourselves.

To capture the series, a track was mounted to the ceiling allowing the camera to slide into and out of the center of the room. Each set was assembled by hand, sometimes taking up to 60 hours for a single scene. The ideas of disconnection, honesty, and loneliness play out in this series. A play on words, the series is photographed entirely within four walls with no windows or doors. The characters are contained with no way out, each interacting with a different element in their room.

Each scene is an emotion the subject will not share. Out of fear, they internalize what they believe no one should feel. This series of pain illustrates how we hurt ourselves and, in some cases, drown.”

Your series deals with the ideas of disconnection, honesty and loneliness, as well as internalizing emotion. How did you decide on these ideas?

I meet a lot of people in a year with the traveling I do – some for photo-related events, others for charity-related events, and some just for fun. After talking to hundreds of people every year about their fears and worries, I realized that the fundamental fear most people have is letting people in too far, worrying that someone will see their flaws. People speak about their fears with shame, and that always makes me so sad because fears are what make us human and what connect us. Anyone can post something online that is happy, and people will engage with that, but when someone speaks openly about their fear there is a much greater and deeper interaction.

I started asking people what they felt they couldn’t let anyone see about them, and the answers started blurring together: fear of aging, fear of being stuck while everyone else surpasses them, etc. But the reason why they felt that way – the disconnection from access to real human emotions – was consistent.

Is there still a connection to the ideas in your older work of beauty in darkness, death and rebirth? Or is this series a departure from that?

Everything that I do centers around that idea. Fourth Wall, to me, is beautiful even though others have said some pieces are more grotesque. I find that when creating, if there is not something dark about the image (as in Undone, where we sewed red thread under the model’s hand) then I am uninterested. In others in the series, I made sure to create unusual body forms, accentuating the androgyny and alien-esque shapes that we may feel we take when we aren’t in the limelight.

What was your creative process in developing this series? How did you come up with the concept for each photograph?

The first image, Undone (with the yarn) was the first one I had in my mind. It came to me in a moment of overwhelming busy-ness where I felt as though I had given all of myself to others and was left with nothing. From there I started to ask people about their fears and began to apply symbols to the words they were saying. For example, feeling stuck/unmotivated/lacking became wax, time became sand, and fragility became eggshells.





Is each photo in the fourth wall an individual story or is there a common thread connecting them all?

Each speaks to a fear that someone is likely to have, but each of them touches on fears that we are all likely to experience at some point in our journeys. I have often felt like each of the different characters even in the last year of my life. For example, I did “Fragile” (with the eggshells) as a self-portrait and a very personal image. However, I can look to “Moment” with the sand and know that one day, I will have those feelings as well.

What are you currently working on? Is this series complete, or will you be expanding it?

This series is complete, and will be exhibited again in Laguna Beach, California this fall. Right now I am focusing on my writing as I finish up my novel, but will soon be back to brainstorming for my next series which I plan to start producing in the second half of this year.

If you could use one word to sum up your new series, what would it be?


Final Thoughts

Brooke’s new series is intriguing in that it raises many questions. All the rooms have no doors. Does that mean the characters are permanently trapped in their pain and emotion? Or could they simply be in miniature rooms with very short walls, so engulfed in their own experiences, not realizing yet that they could choose to climb over? Even worse, are they caught in a Martin Seligman experiment, shocked and traumatized into a temporary learned helplessness?

Then there’s Brooke’s photo “Undone”, which contains a character in a room of brilliant red thread. The image has me singing Bjork’s “Unravel” lyrics in my head over and over again.

While you are away, My heart comes undone

Slowly unravels, In a ball of yarn

The devil collects it, With a grin

Our love, our love, In a ball of yarn

Are we all these faceless characters at one point in our short and fragile lives? I think so. Do we have a way out of these tiny constricting rooms? I hope and know so.

Although Brooke’s art may be dark, it brings light to many lives. Her blog is a constant source of inspiration. In it, she shares her art and encourages others to follow their passions. As a side project, she has brought art and taught photography to children in India. There is no doubt that Brooke is dedicated to her art and her passions. She goes as far as to film herself jumping into freezing rivers and lakes fully clothed in a beautiful dress, in order to inspire others and create a special photograph.

Lastly, I’d like to leave you with a story that Brooke’s art brings to mind. In Egyptian mythology, each night RA the god of the Sun dies and goes down into the underworld in his magic boat Madjet, which means becoming strong. Each night, he and his vessel are swallowed up by the the sky goddess Nut. Even though RA travels through the underworld leaving us to experience darkness, he re-emerges again every morning in the East, bringing with him glorious light. This is the feeling I get after looking at Brooke’s photos.

I believe that the world would be a much darker place if we didn’t have the journeys we experience through Brooke’s dark beautiful art.



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