Brooke Shaden


The world above © Brooke Shaden

Brooke Shaden — one of the most recognized names in modern art photography — is known for her highly stylized and dreamlike images and her ability to put herself in amazing worlds that she wishes she could live in. She began creating self-portraits for ease and to have full control over the images, and has since grown into a self-portrait fine art photographer. Self portraiture for her is not autobiographical in nature. Instead, she places herself within environments she wishes to explore, where secrets are exposed, impossibilities are tested, and life is questioned in eras beyond our own. 

Brooke works to capture fantastic realities within her photographic frame. By using painterly techniques as well as the square format, traditional photographic properties are replaced by otherworldly elements.

She grew up near Amish Country in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she lived until attending Temple University. The area was rooted in nature, and Shaden often hiked with her father, or hunted for arrowheads in the neighboring fields and farms. She grew up in a home where imagination and creativity were encouraged and that attitude continued into adulthood.

She studied Film and English at Temple University, and discovered a love for film-making and eventually photography. At 24, she was the youngest artist in the “Digital Darkroom” exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography. Her photographs have been likened to little films, each complete with character, tension, and a lush visual sense that might easily be called cinematic. Shaden spoke with us about the experience of picking up a camera and using Adobe Photoshop software to create art that blurs the lines between dreams and reality.

"I couldn't live without my imagination", she says. "I think people often forget that imagination is a tool just like a camera or Photoshop. It lets me explore what makes me tick, and it’s the wellspring of all things possible and seemingly impossible.

For as long as I can remember, I have had dark daydreams or nightmares. When I picked up a camera for the first time, I felt like photography and Photoshop would help me confront my fears and help others get a glimpse of the surrealistic visions in my head. I had always loved making short films, yet it clicked for me that I could distill the kernel of a short film into one image. In addition to telling a story, I often use photographs to explore new worlds, where secrets float out in the open. By using painterly techniques, I am able to create otherworldly experiences."

About the role that Photoshop plays in her photography process she explains "Photoshop is huge. I spend a minimum of two — and sometimes up to 10 hours — in Photoshop working on a single picture. I use it like a paintbrush, creating many layers and always tweaking each one slightly to build on itself. It’s just like the canvas a painter might use. When viewed as a canvas, Photoshop is not intimidating or scary to me; instead, it has helped me become the artist I want to be.

My favorite tool is curves. That might not sound hugely exciting to some Photoshop users, but to me changing the color, contrast, brightness, and darkness of an image lets me create new worlds within an image. There are other tools that I use to create a signature style, such as the Reduce Noise option, one of the few filters that I go to, as well as Replace Color."

"About the best advice I ever received is the one from my mom. As simple as it sounds, she always told me: “You never know until you try.” That has been a guiding force in my life and especially my career. The worst thing someone can say is no. Having tried and received some result is better than not trying and getting no results—that is what keeps me going. A lot of people assume that successful artists have things handed to them, but the truth is: success isn’t gift-wrapped. I believe in going after whatever your dream is, no matter how insane it sounds. In fact, the more insane the better, because reaching your dream will be even sweeter.

My view on my career is very similar to how I saw Photoshop when I started. I went into it thinking, "If someone can do it, I can do it too," and so I taught myself Photoshop. I was never taught how to be a photographer or how to run a business, but I know what I want and how to go for it. In my opinion, those are the most important guiding principles a person can have, in careers and in life."