Attack of the Brookalikes

There was, once upon a time, a guy who was a musician, who studied at music college, and became a singer-songwriter. He wrote songs of a personal nature, and put a lot of imagery into his lyrics. Then he picked up his first digital point and shoot and re-ignited a boyhood desire to be a visual artist. After discovering Photoshop, he was hooked. As he learned more about the technical aspects of photography, and met his partner, who was also a photographer, he spent the next few years overly concerned with shutter speeds and ISO settings and depth of field. He forgot or never considered photography could be "about" something, and considered it a creative endeavor, but not artistic or expressive, not like songwriting.
He then discovered the work of a young woman named Brooke Shaden, a fine art photographer from California by way of Pennsylvania. Her bold visual style and surrealist approach, as well as an aesthetic that bordered on oil paintings, in short, blew him away, and awakened a dormant need to create something artistic and personal. Her portfolio and her timeless images made him want to ditch the occasional portrait sessions he was getting, and stop looking for clients that ultimately frustrate him, and focus on making images for himself.
In short, she was a wakeup call for my aspirations in visual art. And that was it. I mean, yes, like anyone exploring a medium, be it music, an instrument, a singer, a painter, a writer, you make some first steps by emulating your influences. Yes, I totally get that. I did three images that were very Brooke. One was a levitation shot (she sort of made that visual effect a staple), one used green apples, because, well, they looked awesome when she used them. Another was a woman in a giant birds nest, because, well, it was cool looking when she did it, and I had an abandoned birds nest in my backyard. And, again, that was it. I had a dim sense of satisfaction in copping a technique, in figuring it out for myself, in approximating something I liked when I saw it. But this did not satisfy me, because it was not my voice, it was not my vision. It was hers.
The only thing I have chosen to adopt from her toolbox, the only thing, was the square format. I really liked and appreciated her reasons why she chose the square aspect, and I am 100% in agreement of the WHY. I am not doing it to be like her. If you are interested in the "why," it's to pull it away from the aspect ratio of a photograph, to make it more of a painterly image. There is also a personal reason I prefer the square: I am a symmetry junkie, and I love my squares all nice and neat! Other things in her arsenal - heavy Photoshop manipulation, texture overlays, I had been doing for over 10 years now, well before I first found her work. I am not going to claim total originality, that would be ignorant and laughable - no one is free of influence and muses, especially artists, but there is a difference between subconsciously letting those influences bubble up naturally and making a lookalike image that borders on plagiarism. The key, I suspect, in doing the former, and not the latter, is maturity, in knowing who you are and from where you come from. In other words, if you have something to say, and it is coming from a place of honesty, it will surface, in time, when the technical aspects recede into reflex, and you stop trying to emulate, and dare to create.
Okay, so much for the musings on all things philosophical. Now to the point:
What is with all the Brookalikes??
Seriously, spend time like I do on sites that I frequent, and ferret out all conceptual or fine art photographers, and you will see dozens upon dozens of people, mainly young women, all copying their heroine with reckless abandon. There are now literally hundreds and hundreds of images of prairie dressed women floating in a field, floating in the woods, looking gothically distressed running from something, or nothing, and it is becoming laughable, frankly. There are thousands of images of dress extension shots - a woman in a brightly colored dress with cloned fabric billowing out for yards and yards all around. There are swarms of flora and fauna interacting with humans. These are or were all Brooke Shaden staples. These copycats are even getting into galleries, into magazines. One of them has even drafted an "artist statement" just like Brooke did, and hers claims "levitation is my passion." It's your PASSION?? A floating human is a passion?
I realize this comes off as highly judgmental, I do. But what is the point of a blog that is not honest, or pulls its punches? This is a little phenomenon that baffles me. I do understand the desire to emulate something cool. I totally get it. I have done it - not so much in photography, but in music. In the 80s, when U2 exploded in stardom, everyone including me bought delay pedals for their guitars to sound like the Edge. It was a great, fresh thing, and yeah, I wanted to sound just like it. But if there is one thing that I learned in becoming a songwriter, it's this: No matter what style you try to impose on your own art, no matter what groove you want to hear in a song you write, who and what you are, your honest true self, if you listen to it, will NOT take something inorganic imposed upon it. It will, if you listen to it and allow it, take you where you need to go, and that is the ONLY place where originality can exist or spring from. You need to get out of the airspace of your heroes, and learn to become what you are. Levitating humans is a definite cool thing. But what is that person levitating for? What is the story or the metaphor there? You don't need to have a story; a photo can just be a coolness endeavor, but if you claim to be a conceptual or fine art photographer, you damn well have to have something to say, and try to say it in your own voice. I say this in the afterglow of completing a round of images that definitely pay homage to Magritte, a definite influence on me. There is an earlier blog entry that talks about these images, called "chasing balloons." But rather than just put an apple in front of someone's face because Magritte did, I was playing in his playground, while telling my own tales in it. And it wasn't every image, it was a few, and there were personal reasons for all the objects and choices in those photos. In other words, you can do homage, or you can do mimicry, and the difference is honesty, intent, and artistic maturity.
What I find most odd about this hero worship, this Hydrox cookie wanting to be an Oreo, is how the Oreo advocates and publicly supports these knockoff cookies, and in doing so, elevates their profiles, their viewership, and validates what they are doing. Perhaps it is ego driven, perhaps it is safe to do so because when you are the genetic forefather of these photocopies, you know no one will have your resolution or status in this strange little world of conceptual photography.
I feel very far away from these Brookalikes, and I am glad to be. Not because I don't like the images themselves, necessarily, but because it is a hollow pursuit. It is quickly descending into caricature. It will never be the lightning in a bottle that Brooke's works were. I have found my own voice, but it really wasn't a long journey to get there, it was really resuming the same voice I forged in songwriting and lyrics. There are chords and melody choices I gravitate to in music, and so it is in photography, or any medium I take up. These Brookalikes may have some technical skill, but they are echoes of a voice, they are generic brands, they are incomplete artists, as they are not yet showing who they are. It's one thing to want to have a person float in the air, it's quite another to find a reason for it and imbue it with some story that means something, if not to anyone else, at least to you. If there is a good case for that person floating, if there is a point to a dress with miles of fabric, if there is a shred of personal meaning in having birds or lizards climbing over a model's head, the viewer will see it.
Otherwise, you are just painting by numbers.
The preceding blog was in no way meant to nor should be interpreted as a negative commentary on Ms. Shaden and her work. I have enjoyed her boldness, her imagery, her strong identity, and have met her while attending one of her workshops. She is a lovely person, and very open and giving to those that attend to her workshops.
Michael Bilotta
Oct 23rd, 2012