If you're a regular to this site, you'll most likely recognize the image above. This photo appeared on our homepage for quite some timed as the seductive picture designed to lure visitors to our blog. The photograph is a self-portrait by photographer, Courtney Brooke Hall, an artist working from the area of Western Massachusetts so rich with interesting artists, that The Pixies (who began there) once referred to it as the "Valley full of pioneers." Courtney agreed to talk to us about her work, but before she does, I thought it would be nice to provide a little background music. The Youtube clip below is a song from Greg Weeks, a member of the Philadelphia based band The Espers, the founder of the Drag City imprint label, Language of Stone, and a personal friend of Courtney. Enjoy.
RINY: When I first saw your photographs, I thought I was looking at an interesting collection of found photographs from the seventies. Do you intentionally try to create a retro look?
CBH: Being able to look back in time objectively allows us to hunt down the positive aspects of time periods. The 70’s do appeal to me, but mostly as a reference point to now. I seem to be drawn to times when youth in culture took a stand against societies norms, such as the 20's or the 60's. I am very into the 70’s aesthetic, but now is a really interesting time to live, and to be able to take the positive things from the past and refine them into something even more amazing.
RINY: What draws you to that era?
CBH: They were times that pushed buttons, the Woman’s Suffrage movement and getting the vote in 1920, the liberation that brought, and then in the 60's, well everyone knows about that. The hippies, the rock and roll, THE DRUGS, it seemed so great. The 70's seemed to be so hip so down to earth, and yet so crazy, it was a time of sexual freedom, and I love that sort of thing. There was a back to the land mentality too, trying to become in tune with nature. It was all so beautiful, the ideas, the music, the clothes, and certainly I'm romanticizing these eras. What I try to take from them personally is the part of these times that seemed to have a great deal of realism to them, had people trying to unfetter themselves and get back the core of what it meant to be a human. All this unrest and open thought triggered so much great art, fashion, and philosophy.
RINY: Your aesthetic, to me anyways, seems very west coast, like these pictures seem like scenes from Northern California or maybe even New Mexico, yet you work in Western Mass. I lived up there for a while and know there’s definitely a lot of sub cultural icons up there - J Mascis, Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lou Barlow, a bunch of Free Jazz guys like Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef, and then the crop of guys like Sunburned Hand of the Man, who ‘s music seems complimentary to your work. Are you involved with any of this? If so, how? If not, what is going on up there in your world?
CBH: I have yet to make it to Northern California and I get told this pretty often. I need to make a point to go and actually see it for myself. Part of the reason I haven't been is because I am so connected with this place I live, all of New England really. I just love it here, the seasons, the magic and the history it has. All the forests here seem haunted. I have driven across the country a few times now and visited some great places, New Mexico included. I loved it there in fact, and yet still I can't picture any other place as home.
I have yet to really run into most of the people you mentioned. I think that it's due to the fact that right now, musically speaking that’s just not the sound I'm into. I actually did meet J Mascis to do art for Witch's second Album.
RINY: You shoot a lot of self-portraits. What are you trying explore with these photographs as opposed to say, shooting other subjects or landscapes?
CBH: I think at one point I wanted to be an actress, when I was younger I was in plays but nothing very serious. Being the subject of my photos lets me get out my need for that, I feel all these little characters just twirling inside me, and in my photographs I get to let those little creatures come to life. I think a lot of people have these sides of them, people you can't just be everyday, but through art they can explode and you can be as fanciful and crazy as you want. It’s an important outlet to be able to live inside a part of a personal fairytale. Honestly a big part of my self-portraits has to do with living out in the woods and not having people to shoot without advanced planning. Most of my self-portraits are done when I look outside and I get inspired by the light hitting the trees, and it's just impossible to organize a spur of the moment shoot with someone who lives far away.
RINY: You also shoot a lot of women. Who are these women and why shoot women as opposed to men?
CBH: I think for the similar reasons I like self portraits, it's as if women find it easier to be softer, sexy, dreamier, and they seem so ready to play one of those roles they have tucked away, they are ready to pull out one of their little characters and show it off. I also have a strong tendency to shoot in nature and there is something about a woman in nature that seems innate. Over the years I have been blessed with many wonderful lady friends, truly talented people. Most of the women I photograph, that’s who they are, my friends.
RINY: Your work seems to have an overwhelming theme of sexuality, women, hippies and Psychedelia. It also seems to have undertones of outlaw biker culture, Wiccan and occult themes. What about these themes are you drawn to?
CBH: I am a big fan of nature and the natural world, of people realizing their true self, and their oneness with the universe, a sense of a greater cosmic community. Many of those themes you listed tend to show up in my work because they are all, to one degree or another, anti-establishment themes. It's rarely a determined decision to try and make one of my photo sets have a certain theme besides highlighting a part of a person's personality, or working with costumes and surroundings that inspire me. It's not as if I set out to replicate specific sub cultural themes, but if those themes have inspired me then they will certainly be present in my work.
RINY: How do you approach a concept and how do you choose and direct your subjects?
CBH: It's strange I feel like day to day I am collecting little mental notes and storing them away for the right moment, and often I don't put them all together until the last minute. Part of that has to do with my subject. Concepts for them are like a hand picked, tailored outfit. Rarely do I have a concept and try to get someone to fill it. More often I find myself looking for a pretty face, or wistful body and then I create a world around them. When I am working within that concept I will often go over a short story with my model/friend, or describe a character to them and 99% of the time they get it right it away, as if that person was inside them all the time. It's inspiring to watch that happen and my work benefits from that process.
RINY: What inspires you culturally?
CBH: EVERYTHING! Art, film, history, nature, science, folklore, friends. It's virtually impossible to cite specific things that inspire me; it's hard to explain how a fragrance can inspire a photograph. Although I work in a visual medium, it's not solely images that inspire me.
RINY: Does music inspires your work?
CBH: Oh, of course! I love to have a soundtrack to the stories I create and photograph. I'll put on a Bo Hansson record and drift away to other worlds and get glimpses of what I can bring back to this one. It's so exciting to find new music and get lost in it, and especially exciting when I can get lost in the music my friends make. It seems as though I'm constantly surrounded by musicians too, which is always wonderful. Honestly I have limited musical skills, but I'm in a band with my man, Chris, and Greg Weeks and his wife Jessica. We don't get to play together often because of distance, but the one show we played was in between a double feature of Jodorowsky's El Topo and The Holy Mountain. It was a phenomenal experience and it really needs to happen more often. Playing music with other people is so exciting to me because it's a visceral experience that is unique and new to me.
RINY: You’ve done some work for bands like the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Cinerama, Greg Weeks of The Espers, Witch, Feathers, Bat For Lashes, etc how did that come about?
CBH: Some of those connections are more interesting than others. Sometimes it ends up being strictly business and only on the Internet, but in cases like Greg Weeks or the Feathers/Witch folks, it leads to fun friendships and meaningful collaborations.
RINY: What was that experience like?
CBH: It's so flattering, and humbling to get to meet, and many times become friends with, such beautiful and creative artists. Not to sound too cheesy, but I often feel blessed. I prefer working with other artists too; I love the sense of collaboration and comradery. There's a tremendous amount of artistic freedom and creative input when working with other artists who understand where I am coming from and what I am trying to accomplish.
RINY: Do you consider yourself a photographer or an artist?
CBH: There is a big difference for me between to the two. I never go out intending to document a subject, I want to create fantasy worlds and highlight the magic I see in people and nature. I want to make images that move people, that people might mistake for a painting, or from being from another time or even another universe; images that transcend the content with in them. So I consider myself an Artist.
RINY: Why photography as opposed to other mediums?
CBH: Photography allows me to play with reality, to create my own worlds. I feel photographs allow for an honesty that can be played with to enable my fantasy worlds to make sense, that people understand that this scene really happened, but they never see the everyday world the way I present it. I never want to make fantasies that are completely unattainable, so photography gives me the ability to insert real people and real world surroundings into my paracosm. My camera lens is a wormhole.
RINY: What type of equipment do you use?
CBH: I learned to shoot on a beat up Canon AE-1, and I still shoot Canon to this day, except these days it's digital. I still use all my old AE lens with an adapter; I just can't stand the way the new lenses feel. They are so loose, and I love the having my aperture on my lens. I'm not much for gear; it weighs me down, so I work with what I can. I'm sure if I had bigger budgets there are cameras I'd love to use, but starving artists work with what they have.
RINY: Have any books inspired your work?
CBH: With out a doubt. I am big fan of fairy tales, and old children's books. Some of my favorites are East of the Sun West of the Moon, an Old Norse tale, The Brown Owl by Ford Maddox Ford, and Donkey Skin a French fairy tale by Charles Perrault. Fairytales, folklore, and mythologies have the same feel to me as my photographs, a realistic unreality. I also live for anything by Joseph Campbell and Carl Sagan.
RINY: How about films?
CBH: I love Jean Rollin vampire films, old silent films like Salome, I just recently saw La Belle et la Bête by Jean Cocteau, it blew me away! There are so many honestly. I'm a big fan of directors like Fellini, Jodorowsky, and David Lynch I feel like I could list so many, at this point I am not entirely sure I could even give you a current theme between them all. Our Netflix queue at home never ends, so I'm a bit overwhelmed by great movies lately.
RINY: What other photographers and artists have influenced you or inspire you?
CBH: This is a hard question for me, I don’t find myself being drawn to one photographer over another. I love Mucha, Arthur Rahckam, Waterhouse, Frank Frazetta, I also love the photos in old Playboys, but there are so many photographers that took part in that I can’t pick them out really. I should point out though that there are some great current photographers out there that move me, such as Alison Scarpulla, Ellen Rogers, and Caryn Drexel to name a few. It’s really about appreciating certain things whether it be art or nature, and using a camera as a tool to demonstrate that appreciation.
RINY: Who would you love to photograph and why?
CBH: I was just talking about this to a friend not that long ago. I would love to get some of those ladies I listed above as well as an additional handful of other beautiful ladies together (stylists, models, fashion junkies, musicians, and the like). I feel like we have created this web of family via the Internet and friends, it would be great to get us all in one place and just have fun, and document each other. I want to have us embrace each other as artists and feed off of each other’s ideas and create a stronger sense of community. I hope to make it happen not too far from now.
RINY: With the given resources what sort of scene would you create to photograph?
CBH: I have always wanted to build a castle with out walls in the forest, beautiful beds and great candelabra stands, long elegant formal tables complete with a fire place by its side all engulfed by pines and maples, I would then fill it with lovely ladies in white with long flowing hair, and Persian cats. I will make it happen.
RINY:What are some images that have inspired you along the way?
To find out more about Courtney visit her website: Light Witch