Beauty in Darkness – My Weekend Photoshoot with Brooke Shaden

Modeling for Brooke. This is, titled “Fallen From Flight” is one of several final images Brooke will unveil soon on her blog.

Expressing a love for all things extraordinary led me to stumble into the genre of conceptual fine art. I’d unearthed something curious — and become spellbound by imagination when I first heard Brooke Shaden’s name. She created an entire world that didn’t exist and, as a model, I could physically be there in that space. But as a creative… I was also already there mentally.

When I was asked to be the in-house model for Brooke’s LA retreat over the new year, I couldn’t have been more ecstatic. Coming from England, I was prepared for the adventure and, more than ever, ready to create art. Joining her and ten other creative photographers at a vineyard in Temecula was an experience I’ll never forget, taking home everlasting memories and priceless lessons learnt.

The group bonded quickly, sharing our dreams and aspirations as well as our fears and regrets. I found myself resounding with what each person said, recognizing my own limitations in their examples of resistance to push themselves. Brooke herself has never denied that she is often afraid — in fact, she welcomes those fears, claiming they inspire her to create and are often the root of her imagery. So much so that she describes her style as ‘finding beauty in darkness’.

Hearing Brooke speak about her own worries encouraged the others to do the same. By sharing their past experiences and providing emotional support to each other, it soon became clear that the group had far more in common than they had originally thought. I was pleasantly surprised to find the admittance of weakness could so easily translate into the discovery of strength.

Spending time with Brooke has shown me that emotions are productive; it’s ok to be afraid, it’s ok to feel lost, and it’s ok to worry. But these negative feelings can be converted into positivity through inspiration. In addition, working with Brooke showed me that the most seemingly undesirable places are often the most creativity-inducing locations. While Brooke pushed us all to examine our fear and push ourselves creatively, she never asks her models to do what she won’t nor go where she can’t.

What inspires me the most about fine art photography is the preconceived planning that must take place before even picking up a camera. For Brooke, the picture itself is often created in little more than ten frames. Then the final image is formulated by combining the elements from each in post production. To make a cohesive image, a fine art photographer must go into it with a clear idea of what he or she is creating.

To prove this point, the first assignment of the retreat focused on posing the subject. Blindfolding each person individually, I stood by a wall and was instructed not to move until directed by the person who couldn’t see.

By doing this, the group saw that they were capable of making decisions efficiently, which prepared them to shoot with intent. The task also demonstrated how artists can be influenced, especially by the reactions of others, and when too many visual options are available. Art is about personal creation from our own mind and we should always make it regardless of what others think.

I’ve also learned to look at everyday objects with abstract vision, recognizing that everything around us can each tell a story. Brooke’s new book Inspiration in Photography sets the reader a challenge to look at an object in depth, in this instance a chair. Look at it hard and ask yourself these few questions: what do the parts of it look like? What are the uses of it and it’s symbolism? What memories do you associate whilst thinking of a specific one and how it is used by different people? By asking these questions, I found myself writing almost a full page of notes referencing an inanimate object leading to a whole host of tangents. I was unexpectedly inspired by a chair!

Watching Brooke work and listening to her teach awakens new parts of me that shout ‘be not afraid to try’. After all, we are all aiming for the same result: self expression through art. However, there are a few other things that I have learned from the artist known as Brooke Shaden…

1. Contagious passion will engulf you. I don’t mean just inspire you, but completely become a part of you. It will leave you with an undeniable urge to throw yourself into the nearest putrid pond whilst fully clothed with your self timer set… And you will be proud of it. It’s life-consuming, soul-absorbing, art-obsessive… And you will love it. You’ll fall asleep thinking of new worlds, dream of creating it and wake up figuring out how. You won’t rest without it. You’ve been warned!

2. Showers are not compulsory. It’s ok to live in yesterday’s skin when modeling because you’ll only return home in more grime. Disclaimer: this comment is valid only until you meet the sewer, in which case, yes, yes showering is most definitely necessary.

3. Know that standing in a cesspool with unthinkables mentioned as your mark…or floating in freezing cold water after sunset…or climbing a sharp rocky hill in bare feet before sunrise, is always worth it for the art. I have the pictures to prove it. Remember, you haven’t achieved anything unless you suffer and/or stink.

4. There is absolutely no point washing out dirt or ironing clothing for Brooke’s shoots. As my Grandma would say, “the wrinkles represent character.” The embedded filth is simply a physical metaphor for the adventures, and a bed sheet held together by hair ties makes as good a dress as any.

5. If the pose doesn’t feel strange then you’re not doing it right.

6. There is an infinite amount of creative concepts, more than you can ever dream up in one lifetime. If you know what you want to achieve and set out with purpose then it will happen. It has not all been done before.

7. Through photography and Photoshop you can allow yourself to be any person in any place without even leaving your front door. Your imagination is your only restriction.

8. You won’t starve being vegan.  Almond milk is the future.

9. Everything has meaning if you only open your eyes. Seeing symbolism in everyday objects is the most liberating talent that anybody can achieve. Once you can do it you’ll see the world through new eyes.

10. There is always beauty to be found in darkness.

Note: Brooke will release a special behind the scenes video of her photo shoot in California sometime next week. Keep an eye on her blog for details. 


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Jen Brook is a fine art and fashion model, as well as a freelance photography writer. Follow her work on her Tumblr and her Facebook Page.