Photo Essay

The atmospheric photography of Rachel Louise Brown

Constructed realities

Khaled Bazzi

In much of her work, Rachel Louise Brown captures the familiar while giving it an other-worldly, haunting quality. A vibrant amusement park takes on the atmosphere of an opening scene from a psychological thriller; empty restaurant tables in an elaborately decorated, slightly careworn setting fill the room with suspense; a boarding school at night is infused with a sense of foreboding. It becomes evident that exploring constructed realities and eliciting unease is at the heart of Brown’s vision. 

In her first project I Want To Be Just Like You, Rachel worked with people who were known to her.

“Because the girls were ten or eleven at the time, I made a conscious effort to disguise their identity and give them fictionalised roles. In my process, I set up a scenario, I light it cinematically so that it feels like it is a part of a constructed scene. I show the subjects the frame through the camera. They then go into it and act however they want to. It’s like a study of body language, essentially. In the images with these girls, I was exploring how femininity is constructed for an image in Western society.” This marked the start of the process she has used ever since.

“In The Swimming Pool Casting, I was really interested in how women responded and acted with each other, as well as how they presented themselves to the camera. These were castings that were specifically with that intention in mind,” she says.

Gazing at The Malevolent Eye, you become a voyeur lurking in the shadows of a hallway where a woman is answering an intercom call by the front door. Who is she? Who is the caller? Where is this? Why are we watching, and should we be? The subject’s posture indicates a degree of impatience and while her face is mostly hidden by her hair, her mouth is tense with words yet to be spoken. We are left trying to resolve the mystery, wondering what will happen next.

“As I moved on to The Malevolent Eye and the Simulations photos, these were castings that I put an ad out for, in newspapers. I didn’t specify who I wanted, so anybody could have put themselves forward. It just so happened that the majority who responded were female. It’s quite interesting in terms of the demographic with respect to gender but also the age: they tended to be between sixteen and 21. I think it’s quite telling and interesting that women who responded very much wanted to explore themselves as objectified images. So they perhaps already perceived themselves in that way anyway, but I wanted to explore it and unpick it a little bit, to find out why that is the case. I didn’t get an immediate answer and would say it’s still developing,” she explains. 

You just have to look at a handful of her images to see the influence of cinema on her body of work. Was there a director or particular film that first sparked her inspiration?

“I would say David Lynch. He is a huge influence on my work. I went to participate in an artist residency in the US, where I experienced the intrinsic fear of being somewhere foreign but familiar at the same time, a place that had loaded themes in terms of the David Lynch films I had watched, the Americana that I had consumed. I was understanding the world around me through the vision of those films. It all became very eerie. It felt like a psychological thriller. All the people you see within the Florida series were strangers. As a result, the encounters had an innate sense of tension, just purely because we didn’t know each other. There were a few people who came along to be photographed who were quite American Psycho – they made me feel uneasy and were perhaps a bit uneasy themselves. So that worked naturally. Very David Lynch! I like when a subtlety can unnerve you. That’s how you can make people think differently about what they’re shown and what they’re fed every day.”

Rachel’s other influences include the late Agnès Varda, about whom she says, “she is an incredible filmmaker and I really enjoy how she depicts teenage girls. “In terms of literature, Tom Robbins, notably Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. He uses magical realism to mix real and myth so that you’re confused as to which is which. It’s a mix of fantasy but within the surface of reality.  I’m also inspired by the painter Edward Hopper.”

What is she working on next?

“When I created my early work around 2008, social media was just starting to become a thing. That has had a significant impact on young people, growing up with it as an embedded tool within their lives for understanding the world and creating visual representations of themselves. There’s a lot more to explore and I’m very much starting to think of that in the work that I’m making,” she says.

However, Rachel notes the negative aspects of social media, such as excessive use of filters to modify body shape, the detrimental effect it’s having on mental health, and the recent trend for wanting plastic surgery that will make people look like their retouched image. 

“It’s very scary, isn’t it?” she observes. “I think it’s not just affecting women, but men too. It highlights how gender stereotypes are indoctrinated into us, informing how we should be, how we should present ourselves. I’m just beginning to explore that within work.”

Rachel Louise Brown has exhibited worldwide and in 2019 she won The Photo London Pavilion Commission exhibited at Somerset House. With a BA in Photography from the London College of Communications, and an MA from the Royal College of Art, Rachel was Photo Director at Harper’s Bazaar and Town and Country magazine for seven years, alongside her ongoing photographic practice. In 2021, she left her commissioning role to focus fully on image making.

She is now a contributing photographer for Harper’s Bazaar and took portraits of the winners, presenters and attendees at the magazine’s 2021 Woman of the Year Awards. She is represented by Wren.Agency and acclaimed photography gallery Crane Kalman Brighton. Visit Rachel-Brown.com to see her all her work.

Prints from Rachel Louise Brown’s “Simulations” series will be on display with Crane Kalman Brighton (Stand G20) at the London Art Fair, Islington Business Design Centre from 21 -24 April 2022

Khaled Bazzi is Art Director at Perspective

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