Looking at Courtney Brooke's photography conjures a sense of quiet nostalgia, like leaves stirring on a cold Massachusetts morning. The New England based photographer has a penchant for a cinematic style that transcends realms, one that invites an occult gaze onto landscape of autumnal Americana. Going by the name of Light Witch seems appropriate considering Brooke's ongoing exploration of the mystical, the feminine, and the unexplained. By weaving a relationship with witchcraft and spirituality into her visual work, Brooke has been able to explore rituals, paganism, and feminism in a haven all her own.
BROADLY: How did you first become involved in photography? Did this come before or after you became interested in the occult?
Brooke: When I was very young, maybe six or seven, my mother would let me take her 110 camera to school with me, on field trips and such. I recall her getting sort of upset with me at one point because she had paid for the film to get processed, and I had taken rolls of photos of stone lions I had seen on the side of a hotel, close up shots of a carousel, and some photos that had been me trying to take photos of the sun resulting in lens flares and rainbows. She wanted to know why I wasn't taking photos of my friends, or really in her opinion, anything at all. I was six; I had no real answer for her. That was the end of her letting me even touch her camera.
It wasn't until I was in high school that I really picked up a camera again, and truly fell in love with the medium. I had a wonderful photo teacher who, on the first day, turned our classroom into a very large working camera. I was sold. It was the perfect combination of math, science, and magic.
Earlier in middle school, I had started to become interested in the occult. I couldn't tell you exactly why, maybe because it was 1994 and it was in everything—music, movies fashion—kind of swirling all around me.
My personal life was a mess; I was being sent to therapy because my mother thought I was too emotional, meanwhile my parents were getting a divorce, I had just been sent to public school after going to Catholic school up until then, and my older sister had just moved out. I felt very alone and very misunderstood (I was a 14 year-old girl). I dug into finding more. I would scour libraries for books and convinced my mom to take me to Salem under the rouse of it being rich in history (which it is), but my real agenda was to make my way to all the stores filled with books and older women who could answer all my questions.
You call yourself an artist rather than a photographer because you create rather than document. How does this work alongside your practice with witchcraft, the occult and experiences that can't truly be documented?
One of the gifts of using photography as my medium is that there comes with it certain constraints; there is only so much that can be "faked." To photograph something it has to—at some level, if not all levels—exists in reality for me to capture it. The mystery around so many pagan beliefs (as well as many other religions) really is that there is so much we can't see, gods we can't touch. That is so much of life though, isn't it? What I have really learned from my experience in paganism is that we are all God and we are all Goddess. I believe there is a deeper mystery to the universe, something that is everywhere all at once; an interconnection between all things, all humans, all animals, all earth, all of the universe. All the universe is both separate but one, simultaneously. So I call myself an artist because I am not just photographing what is there on the surface, and although everything I shoot is there in real time, I have bent real time to my will in hopes to show my viewers that the mystical is attainable, visible, and within their reach.
Your photography has a wonderful, ethereal quality to it, so much so that it feels nostalgic in its beauty. How does living in such a richly historic place like New England influence this, if at all?
At my core, I certainly can be a nostalgic and romantic person, so I am glad that comes through in my work. Those feelings, however, are tied up inside me with this sense of blind hope. We live in a time that's disconnected from the earth, from nature, from each other, so it seems if you read just about any headline on any given day. It's certainly not that I long for a time passed, because I have enough common sense to know that the things I am romanticizing are not any better than the now, but in looking back and seeing that beauty retrospectively, I have hope for a better future.
Maybe that's part of what I love about New England—it can be a harsh place and has a pretty torrid history. The land here seems resilient, though; there is something here that refuses to give up. I can see it so clearly in the seasons, each one so beautiful and unique and not a single one gentle.
How does feminism play a part in the way you photograph women, specifically if they're nude?
So often—currently and certainly through history— when we see a nude, specifically a naked women in art and photography, it is the work of a male artist. Like the Guerrilla Girls movement kindly points out: "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than percent of the artists in the modern art sections are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female." I don't want my art and the story I am trying to tell visually hinge on the aspect of a nude body because that nude body, specifically a woman's, is already a loaded visual word. To be able to build a great visual story around it becomes a challenge, and I become weighed down with questions of how do I empower both my model and convey that power to the viewer? How do I capture this scene and this woman in a way that fights to break down the male gaze? I took baby steps, and by that I mean I took nude self-portraits. With self-portraits I only had to worry about the viewer and not so much the subject. I am using the very thing I was afraid of as a weapon now, showing these naked bodies in ways that meld with the landscape they are in, how they are empowered and natural, and not something to be owned or feared. I still use it sparingly, as a device in a narrative rather than the subject.
Where do you draw inspiration for your series?
The way I work is often very fluid, and not totally premeditated. At any given time I will have a flurry of ideas in my mind. Visions from fairy tales, from books I have read, or from paintings I have seen. The first building block for me is the space I am in. Even from a young age, I would see a beautiful empty field, a salt marsh, a grove of trees, and in my mind place a woman in white floating in the scene. My work today is not too far from the daydreams of my youth. I find these beautiful landscapes that speak to me and everything else falls into place from there.
Have you ever had any paranormal or unexplained things happen while shooting? Has anything ever appeared in the resulting photograph?
Certainly, but let me preface this by saying that, although I don't disbelieve in the paranormal, I also don't totally believe. This past fall, though, I think something was trying to sway me one way more than the other.
It was a calm autumn day in mid-October. I had driven, alone, to find the abandoned town of Dana--one of the four towns dismantled for the construction of the Quabbin Reservoir. It was a two mile hike to the town center on an abandoned road that was flanked with old cellar holes and stone walls--nature had been taking this place back. It was desolate here, no other hikers, nothing but birds and a scattering of chipmunks. As I approached the town common, the sky turned black, the wind picked up, leaves and branches were flying past me, and it seemed as if the sky was going to open up. I walked farther into the center of the common and sat down, at which point, the sky became blue again. Alone, I would say this was just a common New England weather event, except I went back the next day.
The following day I returned armed with my camera, props, and two of my favorite collaborators. The walk in was calm, the sky grey, leaves glowing red and orange. We spent hours in the common taking photographs, enjoying the scenery, and exploring. Dusk was coming, and with two miles back to the car, we packed it in and headed back. About 15 minutes out, with the common to our back, the three of us froze. There was a loud noise, like the thud of something large being dropped, and with it, a rumble that went up through our bodies. At first we thought it was an earthquake--a small tremor. Slightly taken aback, we walked on until another few minutes went by and there it was again—the same thud, same sensation of a tremor in our bodies, but this time, the sound's place of origin seemed to have moved. This happened a few times, each time coming from a different place, and each time with all the birds and everything around us becoming still. It was getting freaky. When we were almost back to the car, two of us saw a strange, dark figure in the woods, and when went to show our other friend, it was gone. I suppose all of this could have been anything, but, regardless, we ran back to the car.
Nothing strange showed up in any of my photographs from that day, and every park ranger I've ask doesn't have an answer for me about what that could have been. I plan on going back, though, and will be sure to let you all know if anything strange happens again.