The relationship between fine art and commercial art has long been fraught with controversy. Their interaction is often a source of tension. Susan Sontag asserts that photographs “are clouds of fantasy and pellets of information” which have the ability to show not only beauty, but the world and our relation to it.[i] Fine art photographs utilize their connection with truth to both display and construct new understandings of reality, producing provocative pellets of information. On the other hand, fashion photographs, or idealized clouds of fantasy, function in the commercial sphere, using the medium to present stylish commodities and persuade the public into purchasing them. However, according to Susan Kismaric’s Fashioning Fiction in Photography Since 1990, fashion photography has recently aligned itself with fine art, becoming more pellet-like by focusing on illuminating facets of contemporary clothing and life, privileging meaning over commercial intent. By crossing the border into artistic territory, fashion photography has gained critical attention, demanding that this commercial outlet be reevaluated for its artistic merits, messages and social value.
Contemporary photographer Claire Rosen straddles the line dividing these two photographic domains, producing both independently conceived projects and those commissioned for commercial use. Inspired by photographers such as Sarah Moon, Annie Liebowitz, Tim Walker, and Erwin Olaf, Rosen stages seductive scenes that appeal to our need for information and fantasy. In order to blend these two seemingly paradoxical realms, these photographers, including Rosen, look to the fairy tale for insight into the human condition.
“Human beings have a deeply rooted need to create and identify with narratives, an instinct linked with the tendency we have to see our lives as a story. We look to narratives for insight into our past and present, and as crystal balls hinting at our future. Narratives represent our deepest fantasies and desires,” and photographer Claire Rosen constructs and chronicles our cravings by evoking the enchanting yet foreboding fairy tale in her work.[ii] Attracted to the beautiful and the bizarre, the whimsical and the rational, the commercial and the theoretical, Claire Rosen carefully composes photographs that are both familiar and fresh, that entice contemplation and elicit consumer impulses. By wrapping memories of childhood in a blanket of darkness, Rosen blends innocent nostalgia with elements of adult longing.
Claire Rosen’s tales are populated by pastry-eating pigs, women lost in the written word or lush landscapes, and taxidermied creatures waiting to be reanimated. The inhabitants of Rosen’s photographs recall the literary characters present in fables penned by the likes of the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson. However, despite the perceived notion that these stories were written solely for children, fairy tales were in fact created to appeal to a broad audience. Their exploration of universal themes and abstract truths affect us in childhood and throughout adulthood. [iii] At a young age, these tales expose us to everyday realities and teach us how to overcome real world obstacles. The appeal of the fairy tale has endured for hundreds of years, proving that the lessons learned in youth indeed serve us well later in life. Fairy tales have become fundamental in forming the ways we understand and manage the world around us, explaining why their motifs have become popular in the field of commercial design. Furthermore, it is the everlasting appeal of the fairy tale that makes Claire Rosen’s photographs resonate on multiple levels.
In both her fine art and advertising projects, Rosen situates her characters in different terrains. Some exist in scenes of pastoral bliss, symbolic of childhood innocence.[iv] Others suggest entry into foreign terrain, representing the loss of purity and the gain of vanity.[v] A third and always present element in Rosen’s work is the inevitability of death, empowering us to revel in the moment and give in to our desires, encouraging us to seek out the unobtainable qualities and consumable products she makes so enticing.
No matter the subject or scene, all of Rosen’s work is infused with a captivating light: a light that is surrounded by darkness, a light that beckons us to move closer, a light that urges us to uncover that which is hidden. Whether creating a diaphanous haze, an ethereal glow, or a crisp stillness, Rosen’s light allures us and persuades us. Fashion advertising’s power relies on its ability to invoke a sense of longing in the spectator, encouraging us to imagine ourselves completing the narrative present in the photograph.[vi] The ambiguity present in fashion photography not only pervades Rosen’s fashion-based imagery but her fine art work as well. This ambiguity leads to temptation, luring us into worlds that blend fact and fiction, lightness and darkness, life and death.
Once upon a time, it became clear that “we have many questions, and with questions answers have to follow. The answers become stories; many stories told us how to act and how to look and what to see.”[vii] In the end, these answers spurred photographers to explore the human condition in fantastical yet relatable ways, allowing us to answer our questions by viewing their beautiful stories.
Exhibitions Coordinator, Corporate Art Program
Johnson & Johnson
i Susan Sontag. “In Plato’s Cave,” in On Photography. Picador: New York, 1977.
ii Edwards, Kathleen A. Acting Out: Invented Melodrama in Contemporary Photography. Washington: University of Washington Press, 2005, 6.
iii Williams, Gareth. Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design. V&A Publishing: London, 2009, 32.
iv Ibid, 15.
vi Edwards, 13.
vi Jurgen Bey quoted in: Williams, Gareth. Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design. V&A Publishing: London, 2009.
Four tiny mice, tails thinner than licorice laces, nibble seeds in the corner of the acrylic pet tote Claire Rosen holds in her slender hands. “I named them after my sisters,” Rosen confides, scooping the smallest (Lillie) from the box to nestle on the front of the petticoat-bolstered dress she’s wearing to match the Marie-Antoinette-meets-the-Borrowers-meets-Beatrix-Potter photo shoot “we” are about to start. I say “we” because 31-year-old Claire’s enthusiasm about her photo projects is so infectious, it’s nearly impossible to stand at the edge without jumping in. “Do you want to hold a mouse?” she asks. Of course I do.
It is late morning. Sunshine streams in. Throughout Rosen’s Montclair, N.J. carriage house, antique curio cabinets overflow with odd bits of taxidermy, faucet knobs and parasols, bird nests and buttons, devil masks and doll heads. Hovering at this shelf and then that, Claire magpies about, gathering bits and pieces to add to the mouse-sized banquet table she’s made from a gold-swagged Laduree macaron box. Around it, pin cushion tuffets, doll-furniture settees and teensy platters of cheese await the mice, newest group of animals to be treated to a Claire Rosen “Fantastical Feast.”
The feasts—banqueting beasts photographed around elaborate tables filled with the foods each animal group loves—are Rosen’s most-encompassing photo fixation yet. Thus far, shoots have included everything from tapirs and turtles in the Amazon, to goats in Sarajevo and elephants in N.J. And if a new proposal pans out, Claire will take the show on the road in a traveling exhibit to include “participatory installation” benefit banquets created by chefs at each international locale. (This time the foods will be for humans, and the discussion around the table, about the animal photos.)
“It’s very inspiring to watch her brainstorm and translate the vision she has in her head into these photographs,” says Ron Haviv, NY photojournalist and owner of the VII photo agency, who is filming footage of Claire at work, and has animal wrangled and assisted on many of her feast shoots. “Her approach to shooting is the opposite of what I do.”
“I’ve never looked at a camera as a documentary tool,” Claire explains, fingering silk ribbons she hopes to tie on the mouse tails. “Even in the beginning, when I would drape my little sisters in sheets and have them pose as Greek goddesses in the backyard, I always wanted to set things up and create my own world in a photograph,” she says. “I want people to be swept away by the story in the image….transported, deeply engaged so that even after they walk away, the image lingers, stays with them.”
Claire’s world does that. It’s a fairytale place both dreamily whimsical and darkly alluring, oddly familiar and exciting fresh. You glimpse it in each of Rosen’s richly luminous images, be they commissioned photographs of Alex Randall Chandeliers shot at night in London’s haunted Bodmin prison, Ryan Wilde millinery modeled to an Edward Gorey theme, opulent marketing photographs of pre-Raphaelite-looking models taken at the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray hotel in Dubai or any of the multiple found-object, taxidermy, feast and fairytale series she creates as her art.
“Claire definitely has an old soul, a very deep and visceral connection to things past,” says Jeff Campagna, Associate Photo Editor for Smithsonian magazine, who has hired Claire to create photographs for the magazine’s “National Treasures” series. “She really digs in and researches the subject matter, creating a whole little world from scratch for the object she will be bringing to life.”
Talking about “Martha: the Last Passenger Pigeon,” for example, a recent National Treasure Claire shot, Campagna says Claire’s enthusiasm for the subject matter was palpable. “There she was, up on a table constructing a beautiful miniature set to replicate Audubon’s illustration, all the while discussing the finer points of taxidermy with the museum curators.”
There is an uncanny continuity both to Claire’s work, and to the things clients, mentors and associates have to say about her. Like Campagna, all of them talked about feeling a near-immediate connection with Claire, her unassuming accessibility, intensity of vision, work ethic, professionalism and impeccable workmanship.
“We instantly artistically fell in love and have worked together ever since, says Ryan Wilde, now millinery director at the JJ Hat Center in New York City, and for whom Claire has done lookbooks and an alphabetical series of hat photos playfully reminiscent of Edward Gorey illustrations. “Claire has an amazing eye, but she’s also incredibly skilled, leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of perfection,” says Wilde. “And don’t be fooled by the fairytale essence—I’ve seen Claire wrangle an enormous amount of assistants. She’s kind and sweet, but she’s definitely the ruler of her domain. People take her very seriously.”
“We immediately clicked,” agrees Becci Manson, expert New York City retoucher, who has worked with Claire on almost all of the feast series photos. “Claire has this intoxicating creative energy about her that is very addictive. It’s not forced, it’s not manufactured, it’s just Claire. I think that’s why her stuff is so magical, she just lets herself come through. When you meet her, you just know that these images in her head? They WILL be created.”
Ditto Heidi Aishman, Atlanta based curator who brought Claire’s Birds of a Feather work to the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery there, and is now working on a new proposal around Claire’s Fantastical Feast series. “As a curator, I meet a lot of young artists and it's often difficult to make the connection between the artist and their work. With Claire, it’s immediate. You meet her, you see her work, and it’s very clear that it’s her voice coming out of these photographs. And she’s just so beautifully professional. The quality of what she creates is not something you often see from a young, emerging artist.”
Discussing the Birds of a Feather series, Aishman says it was the “thought behind the work that was so interesting to me. She saw these birds and then had the vision to photograph them in relationship to this vintage wallpaper resulting in animal portraits that feel like they capture a disappearing culture. In that setting, the birds take on their own identity and morph into these anthropomorphized creatures. This created a lot of very interesting conversation.”
Claire’s gift for quick and sincere connections with people has helped her produce a lot of work, quickly. Aishman tells the story of breakfasting with Claire at a restaurant in Atlanta known for its rare bird collection. “Within minutes, “says Aishman, “she had her bird book out and was talking to the owner. Two days later, we’re setting up a shoot at the restaurant.”
Likewise, New York restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld moved from meeting Claire to commissioning her to do a fantastical feast of ducks for his bespoke cocktail bar restaurant Decoy, in a matter of minutes. “We’d only just met and spent 15 minutes talking and looking at her feast imagery and I said, “it would be fantastic if I could get a photo of a bunch of ducks feasting in a similar mode,” Schoenfeld remembers. “Then, in less than a week she went from meeting me to seeing the space, arranging the photo shoot at a duck farm, wrangling a group of assistants to go with her, and taking great care to shape the piece like a 17th century painting of a Flemish last supper that is perfect for the space. A week later? She had the whole thing done.”
Depth of Vision
But none of the connections would happen were it not for the grounded-ness and depth of vision Rosen has around her work. “It helps so much to understand where you come from, why you choose the specific things you choose to photograph, and how to set up your life to be as conducive to inspiration and creativity as possible so that you have more conscious control over being able to produce things that feel authentic and exciting to you,” says Claire.
To get there herself, Claire spent time with a creative consultant who had her research her ancestry. “At the time, I had been doing a lot of fashion photography,” Claire recalls. “I didn’t know anything about my mom’s dad, who died when my mom was only 16. But in the process of doing the research, I discovered that mom’s dad was a fashion photographer in Hollywood. My uncle sent me photographs he had taken and I was amazed: Here were all these photos of women with animals--a woman in a zebra-patterned coat with zebras, starlets with baby lions--and just months before I had been shooting models with big cats and other animals. It felt so confirming that I was meant to be a photographer, as if my grandfather had been whispering in my ear the whole time.“
Perhaps not surprisingly, the path that led Claire to find her vision started with story. Lots and lots of it. “My mom read tons of fairy tales to me growing up,” Claire recalls. “The original Alice in Wonderland, the Arthur Rackham illustrated Grimm’s fairytales, the Wizard of Oz books, Beatrix Potter.” A culinary historian, with a special flair for Victorian-era cake baking, Dolly Rosen “always went out of her way to make my birthdays (and my sisters birthdays) really magical themed events, with geisha, clown, wonderland, and Oz themes, and the cakes were always amazing,” says Claire. Her father, Edward, a banking and intellectual property lawyer, interested Claire in philosophy and Socratic analysis. Trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum were frequent, shaping Claire’s abiding love for taxidermy. “I would cry after leaving the museum when I was little, because I wanted to live with the animals in the dioramas,” Claire recalls, laughing.
But Claire hit a rough patch as a teen. “I was in such turmoil inside. I had a huge perfectionistic streak and was really hard on myself,” she says. She dropped out of three high schools before heading to Bard at Simon’s Rock in the Berkshires. There, she picked up a camera for the first time. “It quite literally gave me a voice when I had none,” says Claire. “I will never forget the first time I saw an image coming up in the darkroom. I thought, “This really is magic.”
At the Savannah College of Art and Design, Claire built her technical skills and met Steve Aishman, the Harvard-physicist-turned-photography-instructor (now also dean of academic services at SCAD) who was to become one of Claire’s longtime mentors. “Claire excelled at the history of photography and contemporary theory,” says Aishman. “She really probed and took things in. I remember looking at Pre-Raphaelites with her and discussing philosophically why they were interested in the aesthetic that they were. How romanticism was summoned into contact with modernism and what that meant for society as a whole. Claire analyzed all that, understood the cultural effect of it and now applies that to her photography. Her feast series, for example, is a great contemporary analysis of how humans deal with/view and relate to animals, while at the same time it taps into the fantastic history of biblical, feast and food imagery.”
Other seminal moments in Claire’s development included time at the Joyce Tenneson Studio and the Maine Media Workshop in Rockport, ME, where she started reading the Carl Jung, Freud, dream analysis, Joseph Campbell and Bruno Bettelheim that have deeply impacted her work. She met photographer Cig Harvey and other strong female role models and created her first two large bodies of work: her fairytale self-portrait series and doll series. “Cig and the other women I met there really encouraged me in this. They were making work that was authentic to their experience and charted a path for me on how to put my own psychology and emotion in a visually symbolic way that is personal yet also universal,” says Claire.
Merging what she learned from her mentors, and in her own journey, Claire now frequently teaches workshops, which truly are nutshell versions of her own life process, and underscore the importance of finding ones voice and creating a community to help share that voice. “That’s the goal. There’s no formula “do this and you’ll be successful.” It’s more about find the voice and the community and market for this work that is so uniquely yours. It all stems from the place of being able to have the kind of life you want and create the work that you want,” Claire concludes: “To me? It’s such a gift. I feel so lucky that this is what I get to do.