Brooke Shaden Connects Through Art

By Alyssa Coppelman

Photographer Brooke Shaden crafts images that are steeped in symbolism. Each image encapsulates a full story, or at least a crucial plot point. It makes sense that she got her start by experimenting with filmmaking—most dubiously when she made her first video at age 13, set to an N’Sync song.

After going to college in order to study filmmaking, Shaden realized she preferred photography, notably because she could work alone and more quickly than when making a film. And while she was able to take elements of her formal filmmaking training and apply them to photography, she is otherwise self-taught.  

Shaden’s image-making process always begins with the development of an idea. In fact, she won’t begin shooting until she understands exactly what she wants to say and why she feels the need to make any given image. “The creation process feels empty for me if I am not exploring my depths and then creating what I see, so I always work from a place of planning,” she says.

When searching for ideas to translate into photographs, Shaden loves to explore overarching concepts. “Symbolism and storytelling elements like conflict and characterization are at the core of why I want to create,” she explains. “When I am brainstorming, I often write down keywords—themes, loose ideas—that are occupying my mind in that moment. From there, I write down descriptions of visuals that go with those words in an effort to visually bring about art from the ideas. I focus on location, color, and character, and sometimes props or wardrobe, as well. Once I have the idea, I write down a little paragraph about what the image is, why it is meaningful, and how I plan to technically achieve it.”

Because her planning phase is so thorough, Shaden generally spends only five to fifteen minutes, depending on the image’s complexity, actually shooting. “I tend to shoot very quickly, only taking the exact number of images I need to edit later, because I don't enjoy the technical process of working a camera. I love being in the spaces I choose to shoot in—and locations in nature are my favorite—so I spend most of my time settled within the location rather than shooting in it. I tend to be very decisive, so taking few images works well for me. There are times I regret it, when I wish I had shot some ‘safety’ pictures, but generally it works out.” 

And since 80% of her images (and all her latest work) are self-portraits, Shaden doesn’t have to spend time communicating what she wants realized. She shoots mostly on location, usually in nature, but last year built a small room she uses as a set occasionally. “I appreciate not being held accountable to anyone but myself, and being alone with my work is a precious time for me. I relish the solitude. Self-portraiture has been an incredible way of becoming characters and essentially living multiple lives through those people, or portraying different ideas that don't normally show themselves in my day-to-day life.”

Once the images are made, the editing begins, a process Shaden says is a “fairly simple sequence of events.” She uses Adobe Bridge CC to organize and choose her photos, then spends two to four hours compositing in Adobe Photoshop CC: “On average, I combine anywhere from three to eight photos for a composition.”

Shaden also uses Photoshop to edit lighting and colors and to add texture. “I change light and color by selectively placing it where I feel it should be, rather than making overall adjustments,” she says. She relies on Curves “for the depth and flexibility it gives”; Replace Color “for creating a different look to my often-reused wardrobe”; and Background Eraser “for better cut-outs.” She uses these tools on almost every image, along with Reduce Noise, Adjustment Layers, Layer Masks, and Transform tools, especially Warp. 

She compares her process to that of a painter, using the full image as a canvas and layering as she works. “I remember a couple of images that took 1,000 layers, but those are rare, and my computer hates me for it.”

Once done editing, Shaden posts her work online. She is a big proponent of sharing her work on her website and Instagram, because for her, “art is enhanced when others form opinions of it.” She sometimes runs into negative feedback. “I like to be quite personal when I share my images and there are times when that doesn’t resonate. It is easy to feel misunderstood from time to time. However, I have come to see this as a good thing. The more polarizing the work is, the more it is impacting people.”

Shaden loves the to bring her imagination to life. “That delights the child in me like you can't believe. I have always had an incredibly wild imagination, so the experience of seeing it right there in front of me, knowing that it came from within my depths, is without parallel. My other favorite part of creating is sharing. If I can release an image that is meaningful and personal and hear someone say, ‘Me too’ in response, I feel that we are far more connected than torn apart. That is the beauty of all art.”