Most compelling about the work of photographer Claire Rosen is how fantasy and the natural world come together. In much of her work, images from fairy tales and incongruous landscapes are used to create scenes or imaginary worlds: a woman in a gown has a horse’s head; a mermaid has washed upon the rocks; flying horses are held to a baby’s wrist with ribbons. This otherworldliness leaves the viewer in a state of wonder and awe. However, the viewer is often met with a sense of familiarity.
In works such as the series, Fairy Tales & other Stories, the fantastic coalesces with recognizable images from fairy tales and fables, communicating a particular theme or narrative. A girl in a blue dress and white apron, sitting at a table with an opulent tea party, may communicate Alice in Wonderland. It has been said that fairy tales exist to guide us in the decisions we make, and teach us right from wrong. In Rosen’s photographs, the natural world is overpowering, with a flush that hums of danger, a world not too different from our own.
Claire Rosen received a Liberal Arts AA degree from Bard College at Simon’s Rock in 2003 and graduated from the Savannah School of Art and Design in 2006 with a BFA in Photography. Her other fine art projects include Birds of a Feather and The Millbrook Collection. She has had exhibitions across the United States, and in Dubai and Norway, and most recently, she was included on the 2012 Forbes 30 Under 30 for Art and Design.
The Rumpus: Let’s begin with a simple one. How did you get interested in photography?
Claire Rosen: I took my first photo class as an elective at Simon’s Rock because I had a crush on a boy, and then I became obsessed with photography. I remember being in the darkroom for the first time and watching the image come up, and I think that is what did it for me. It felt very magical.
I only made this connection recently—even in my first photo classes, I was setting things up. I was never walking around and shooting what was around me. I was making little scenes in these little worlds, so it was more of a tool to get out what was in my head.
Rumpus: That’s interesting. I see photography as this natural impulse because of our need to record our lives as we live and see it. Look at how ubiquitous Instagram has become. For you, this wasn’t a natural step; you went straight to setting up scenes. What words would you use to describe what you’re trying to do as an artist?
Rosen: Photography is a vehicle for me to explore things that I find interesting that usually have some place in history and some relation to wonder, awe, whimsy, reverie, magic, and fantasy. I think that all of those things are addressed in every project that I do. The part that I really enjoy is the building, the creating of the world. The photograph is a byproduct of that.
Rumpus: Fairy Tales & other Stories presents worlds that are unknown and fantastical. Yet, even with this feeling of otherness, there is an immediate familiarity with the images presented because they are recognizable as fairy tale tropes. How does this affect the viewer’s relationship with the photographs in this series?
Rosen: I think [fairy tales] illuminate the universality of the human condition. From an image-making standpoint, using fairy tales provides a common base of visual symbolism that is part of a shared cultural memory, so your viewer is likely to understand the themes you are trying to convey.
For example, an image of a girl in a red cape with a basket will immediately be identified as Little Red Riding Hood, even without a wolf or woods. A fair, dark-haired woman holding a bitten apple will make most people think of Snow White. These stories are all very visually rich and fantastical in nature, but deal with issues that are grounded in the reality of human psychology and development.
Rumpus: What issues might these be?
Rosen: At their core, fairy tales and many children’s stories are road maps for behavior, or cautionary tales about right and wrong. I’m reading this book by Bruno Bettelheim called, The Uses of Enchantment. It’s about the importance of fairy tales in a child’s psychological development, and how, because a child’s interpretation of the fairy tales are quite different than adults, they are actually very useful for getting through certain childhood stages.
The hero character is almost always presented with a difficulty that they have to overcome, and they have to develop as a person to overcome this problem. [Solving the problem] is not something that happens immediately, and it is something that requires perseverance and is not always easy. I really appreciate the lessons that are in fairy tales. So, I think that’s why I’m so drawn to them.
Rumpus: How does this sense or idea of growth relate to these photos as self-portraits?
Rosen: I think fairy tales are an appropriate vehicle to look at my own journey of becoming an adult, even if it’s a little bit later than the age group that it was intended. The idea is that it’s about a journey, and they’re almost always about figuring out who you are, and doing the right thing.
Rumpus: What do you think you’re revealing about yourself?
Rosen: My self-portraits were done at a time of uncertainty; it was directly after graduating from college, and as I think many students can relate, the weeks and months that followed were filled with questions about what would come next. ”What do I think about the world and what is my place in it?”, “What do I want my life to be like?”, “How am I ever going to make money?”, and “What is the ‘right’ path to take in terms of my decisions?” So these photos are really a way to symbolically manifest these questions where I use nature as a way of scaling it—to represent insecurity, vulnerability, and uncertainty. I think in looking back at them, that they really feel almost paralyzed, like a moment of indecision, where you are kind of waiting to see what happens.
The newer ones that I’ve made, to me, they feel more like a quest or journey than any of the other ones. It feels more proactive and more symbolic of my state of mind right now. I have a goal, I have a mission, I have something I’m traveling towards.
Rumpus: This shift is perceptible, I think, in your movement from being passive in your relationship with nature to the more recent photos, such as “The Quest,” where you talk to a bird, no longer being dominated by the natural world. In Fairy Tales & other Stories, nature has such an exquisite, ethereal feel, almost a dreaminess, emphasizing its inconceivable scale and adding to the photo’s sense of timelessness. Do you use Photoshop to get these effects?
Rosen: It depends on the image. I don’t have a consistent Photoshop routine, and some pictures need it and some don’t. My feeling on this is that I do whatever makes the image look like how I want it. So I don’t have any rules or qualms about Photoshop, but I do try and do as much as I can in camera. Some of the ones that look the most Photoshopped aren’t, and some of the ones that don’t look Photoshopped at all are.
Rumpus: One of the images that really stood out to me was of the peasant girl standing in the bucket. The bucket, the dress—it’s wonderful. How did that one come about?
Rosen: So that was a dress I’d found at a flea market in Maine two weeks earlier. When I lived in Maine, I always had a big suitcase in my trunk filled with ball gowns, old prom dresses from Goodwill or The Salvation Army, with other random things I had found, so that I had all these ingredients in case I came across a landscape or found a spot that I really liked. That picture was done during a workshop that Joyce Tenneson, the woman I worked for, was teaching for Norwegian photographers. The students had been photographing all day in a beautiful local garden. As they were wrapping up to leave, I had the opportunity to make an image for myself. I’d been running around this garden all day and for some reason could not come up with an idea for the life of me. Then I noticed the empty pot/flower planter and thought almost sarcastically that I should go stand in it because it would represent my lack of creativity. I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome and thought it would be appropriate to name the image “Mnemosyne,“ after the Greek goddess of memory, because she is the mother of the Muses, where all creativity comes from.
Rumpus: Most of your photographs visually reference fairy tales in general, rather than one specifically. Do you have a favorite fairy tale?
Rosen: I’ve always liked Twelve Dancing Princesses.
Rumpus: I’ve never heard of that one. Can you tell it?
Rosen: A king had twelve daughters, each prettier than the next. Every night, they would be locked away in their room and every morning, all of the princesses would be in their beds, but their shoes would have been danced to bits. The king could not figure out how this had happened. The king proclaimed that whoever could solve the mystery would be promised his kingdom and allowed to wed one of his daughters. (However, if they failed after three nights, they would be sentenced to death). Princes came from far and wide and one after another, they failed to discover what the girls were up to.
One day, a traveling soldier came to the assistance of an old woman in the woods, and she gave him an invisibility cloak and warned him not to eat or drink anything given to him by the princesses. The soldier was well received at the palace and in the evening, the eldest princess offers him a cup of wine which the soldier only pretends to drink and begins to snore loudly as if asleep.
The soldier, with his magic cloak, watches as the twelve princesses dress in gowns and exit through a passageway on one of their beds. The passageway leads them to three groves of trees: the first having leaves of silver, the second of gold, and the third of glittering rubies. The soldier breaks off a twig of each as evidence. They walk until they come upon a lake with twelve boats and twelve princes. Each princess is rowed to a castle on the other side of the lake, into which all the princesses dance the night away.
When it comes time for the soldier to declare the princesses’ secret, he goes before the king with the three branches and a golden cup, and tells the king all he has seen. The princesses know that there is no use in denying the truth, and confess. The soldier gets to marry the youngest princess.
Rumpus: That’s so unlike other fairy tales I’ve heard before; I really like it. What is it about the tale that resonates so strongly with you.?
Rosen: Well, I grew up with many sisters, and I also feel the story highlights the particular difficulties for girls in growing up and the rite of passage into adulthood. I feel the bed acts a doorway to dreams and enchantment. I believe the beautiful visuals in this story, especially the description of the groves of the silver, gold, and ruby trees, represents how precious and valuable that transitional time is in our lives. By dancing the night away with princes, the princesses can act out grown-up roles, though they are not yet grown-ups.
Rumpus: Yeah, and I think the princesses, like a lot of young girls, feel ambivalent about becoming women. Their performance of adulthood only happens in a place associated with magic, and the princesses try to keep their maturation a secret. Culturally, we have this idea that girls yearn to grow up and become women, but the process of growing up is a scary and long process, and not all are ready when biology kicks in.
Switching gears here though, I want to talk about your commercial work. I know that a lot of photographers say, “What I do is fine art,” and see commercial work as beneath them. What makes you see things differently?
Rosen: Because I think that the lines are really shifting between commercial and fine art work, and I also think that it’s kind of a ridiculous statement. If you look at the Sistine Chapel, or Vermeer, those were all commissioned pieces. The Sistine Chapel is a commissioned work, so I think it’s absolutely ridiculous for people to say that they don’t do commissioned work.
Rumpus: So does “commissioned” mean that it’s commercial?
Rosen: It means that someone has paid for it. At the end of the day, it’s semantics. It’s the idea that a commercial image is selling a product, and that makes it not authentic; but I think that is a very limited view of what art can do and of the power of images. Think back to the Benetton ads that Oliviero Toscani did that were hugely controversial, and the social commentary it made. And the images were for Benneton.
Rumpus: I’m not sure how I feel about commissioned work, but it is worth pointing out that film and television, much of which can be considered art, have product placement all the time. What sort of commercial images do you make?
Rosen: My favorite client is a chandelier designer named Alex Randell, who is based out of the U.K. She does these lighting fixtures out of taxidermy animals with spoke objects, and the thing that I really love about her work is that it very much straddles the line between being a fine art piece, in and of itself, and a functional object for your home, which is where I’m striving to be with my photography. Even if a piece is commissioned, it can still exist in the fine art realm.
I can give you an example. This is one of her pieces, it’s an antler chandelier. You might not know that is an advertisement, and that was part of the goal, to make memorable images that people would remember, as opposed to just selling a product.
Rumpus: Yeah, I don’t think anyone would recognize this as an advertisement. How did you make this image?
Rosen: This particular picture was shot in San Francisco. We had a gallery exhibition of the images we had created with her chandeliers. This was one of the new pieces in the show that we wanted to photograph before the show opened. This was done in an elevator shaft; it was raised up and the gates were rigged open. So [the chandelier] is suspended from up here and this is my assistant underneath, with a dynalite head that has bubble wrap in front of it.
Rumpus: I have to say that I love Birds of a Feather. Beautiful and preposterous at the same time.
Rosen: It started because I went to this bird outlet in Burlington, New Jersey to track down a toucan for an album cover I was commissioned to do. I’d looked everywhere; it’s really hard to find toucans or inexpensively rent them. We drove an hour and a half to go see this toucan at this bird store that claims to be the biggest bird store in New Jersey. Just walking around, I was inspired by all the colors and the feathers. Birds are so interesting-looking with their beaks and their little claws. I thought I’d really love to photograph these birds. But I thought, “How can I do this in a way that’s different than the people who have photographed birds before?”
I had the idea of paring them with vintage wall paper, wanting the birds to blend in, almost as an optical illusion, so that it looked sort of flat. While I was photographing them, I was really struck by how they took on these almost human characteristics and how posey they were. It just cracks me up because their little faces are so hammy and ridiculous; they look like people. [These images] really feel more like portraits than I thought they were going to be. I thought they would be more of a still life thing.
Rumpus: Where did you get the birds from? Did you go back to the biggest bird store in New Jersey?
Rosen: Yes. They thought I was crazy. I set up in their lobby, basically, and just did them on a rotation.
Rumpus: What’s your next project going to be?
Rosen: A photographic series of animal feasts, which is also a dream project!
Claire Rosen teaches workshops in cities all over the world. For a complete, up-to-date listing of upcoming workshops, click here.
All photography © Claire Rosen.
“The Quest,” 2010
Series: Fairy Tales & other Stories
Locality: Millbrook, NY
Series: Fairy Tales & other Stories
Locality: Rockport, ME
“Lucern Ferre, The Light Bearer”
Series: Bespoke for Alex Randall, 2011
Client: Alex Randall Lighting
Locality: San Francisco, CA
Credits: Model – Michael Thomson, Set Stylists – Mindi Steiner and Philip Bescemi, Furniture – Ken Fulk inc.
Product: Antler Chandelier