Theatre Of Sport

“I am keen on capturing sports that involve a level of staging and dress up in order for the athlete to perform a theatrical spectacle.” We talk to photographer Rachel Louise Brown

By Glorious

Photography by Rachel Louise Brown

Rachel Louise Brown is a fine artist whose photographs explore the imaginary, the unfamiliar, performance, and constructed realities. Inspired by conceptual and philosophical lines of enquiry, a sense of theatrical strangeness runs through her work. Rachel has exhibited worldwide, most notably winning the Photo London Pavilion commission exhibited at Somerset House in 2019, and here she talks to Glorious about how her work encapsulates women’s sport.

glorious rachel louise brown bryony page trampolinist training
Bryony Page, Team GB Trampolinist for Harper’s Bazaar, 2021.

Glorious: When did you realise you had a talent for capturing great photos?

Rachel Louise Brown: When I was 11, I won my local newspaper’s junior journalist competition – I’d always wanted to be a reporter growing up. The prize was a work experience stint, during which I gravitated towards the photography department and discovered the power of image making in telling a story. I was hooked. My photographic education took me from GCSE through to Masters level. I was diagnosed with dyslexia when studying my MA so it turns out telling stories with photography was perhaps my natural coping mechanism for being not so good with words. I find it hard to describe my pictures as great because there are so many great image makers out there, but what is great is love for the medium and the journey it has given me so far. You never stop learning, evolving and striving to make better work.

glorious rachel louise brown simulations
Practise I, Palm Beach Gymnastics. West Palm Beach. From the series Simulations, 2017.

Glorious: How do you come across these groups of people that appear in your work, for example the ballerinas and marching bands of the ‘Simulations’ series?

Rachel Louise Brown: For that particular series I was undergoing an artist residency at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre in Florida; exploring the idea of the American Dream within a state that is infamous for escapism and thrill-seeking. I sought out locations and people who performed for an audience, through a mix of online research, word of mouth and casting calls in local media.

ESCAPISM

glorious rachel louise brown wheelchair basketball
Amy Conroy. Team GB Co Captain, Women’s Wheelchair Basketball for Harper’s Bazaar, 2021.

Glorious: You often feature female sports teams in your work, are there any other sports you want to explore?

Rachel Louise Brown: I am keen on capturing sports that require an absolute dedication to the training of the body in taking it beyond the limits of the norm, also ones that involve a level of staging and dress up in order for the athlete to perform a theatrical spectacle. I’d love to explore figure skating, synchronised ice skating and gymnastics (again), also sports that are divisive or teeter on the edge of classification as being sport – dance, contortion, aerobatic circus acts, bodybuilding for example.

glorious rachel louise brown artistic swimming olympics
Kate Shortman + Izzy Thorpe. Team GB, Artistic Swimming for Harper’s Bazaar, 2021.

STORIES

Glorious: There’s a softness and calmness to your photos of active sports for example the ‘Olympic Portfolio x Harper’s Bazaar UK’ series, does this mostly come from the art direction or is it more in the moment spontaneity?

Rachel Louise Brown: The Olympic portfolio was a documentary portfolio project that I pitched to Bazaar before I left my role as Photo Director. Because it was so close to the Olympics when the shoots occurred, I had to be very mindful of keeping distance and not compromising the athlete’s bubble; which lent itself to my style of shooting very well, as I often have a character performing small within the space. The calmness comes from the intimacy of the shoot – in that it was just myself and the athlete/s, and they were being photographed with a medium format film camera so couldn’t be distracted by seeing imagery of themselves. Their performances were pure for a method of photography that they hadn’t experienced before and it enabled them to enjoy the shoot rather than worrying about how they and their bodies looked within the photographs. I guess you could describe my method of working as spontaneous art direction.

glorious rachel louise brown simulations ballet
Rehearsal I, Ballet East. West Palm Beach, from the series Simulations, 2017.
glorious rachel louise brown
Izzy Thorpe. Team GB, Artistic Swimming for Harper’s Bazaar, 2021.

Glorious: How do you shoot the fast-paced active images? What do you shoot with?

Rachel Louise Brown: With great difficulty, as I am often shooting on an analogue medium format camera with fairly slow speed film. I’m often asking athletes to freeze their motion (where possible) for up to 1 second and when not possible, I am seeking moments where an element of their body is still. I do like to capture a slight blur from movement however, so would still shoot at slow speeds. There’s something magical for me seeing a soft foot or hand within a still photograph; frozen motion.

glorious rachel louise brown bryony page training olympics
Bryony Page, Team GB Trampolinist for Harper’s Bazaar, 2021.

Glorious: In your series ‘Olympic Portfolio x Harper’s Bazaar UK’ were the photos constructed around the people you are capturing or was the vison already in place before you had the athletes in mind?

Rachel Louise Brown: As it was so close to the Olympics / Paralympics, I had to work with those who were not quarantining. The vision was shaped by who was available and evolved further – in a spontaneously manner – when at their training spaces.

Glorious: What role does location and lighting have in your work?

Rachel Louise Brown: Both play a huge part, but in the examples here, it’s more about working with the ambient, artificial lighting readily available in the space. While I will often light scenarios, especially for commissions, I always enjoy working with how a space was intentionally lit. The location often plays the biggest role as the sitter is sometimes a small character cocooned within the space. Real locations also often provide enough theatre and context that, twinned with the colour palette of the medium format film, enable a still photograph to truly come to life.

CALMNESS

glorious rachel louise brown simulations stripper
The Dancer, Scores Gentlemen’s Club, West Palm Beach. From the series Simulations, 2017.
glorious rachel louise brown simulations ballet
Rehearsal II, Ballet East. West Palm Beach, from the series Simulations, 2017.

Glorious: Do you work on your own, or do you work with a team of people?

Rachel Louise Brown: For personal work, and the imagery you see here, I tended to work alone. I am very interested in how the psychology of the interaction, particularly the relationship between space, sitter/s and myself, affects their performance within the image. Some good examples of this are the ballerinas, gymnasts, mermaid and the stripper. I showed each the framing of my composition through the viewfinder of my camera, and they went into the scene and performed for the photograph as they wished. When I am shooting a commission I will work with a larger team, particularly when time is tight and there’s a lot to achieve.

Glorious: Do you prioritise documentation or narrative in your work, or do both go hand in hand?

Rachel Louise Brown: Both go hand in hand, but there’s definitely a seed in each that evolves the other regardless of which comes first. I always aim for a project or commission to involve both.

FASCINATION

glorious rachel louise brown wheelchair basketball
Charlie Moore, Joy Haizelden, & Kayla Bell of the Team GB Wheelchair Basketball Team for Harper’s Bazaar, 2021.

Glorious: What is it that fascinates you about sports groups and athletes that makes you want to use them consistently throughout your work?

Rachel Louise Brown: The idea of dedicating your life to training and altering the body to perform within a specific genre absolutely astounds me; particularly as that often occurs from a very young age.

Glorious: Do you have any female sporting heroes of your own?

Rachel Louise Brown: Any woman who manages to make a career out of sport is my hero, no matter what level of recognition and fame they achieve. If I have to name names it would be Dame Sarah Storey, Laura Kenny, Dina Asher Smith and Jessica Ennis Hill… all incredible athletes with an insane amount of achievement and each is an amazing role model. They also agreed to pose with a champagne fountain for me recently despite being teetotal; legends!

glorious rachel louise brown
Bryony Page, Team GB Trampolinist for Harper’s Bazaar, 2021.

Glorious: Besides your photography, do you partake in any sports yourself?

Rachel Louise Brown: During childhood, I trained in gymnastics and dance but didn’t have the natural ability or fearlessness required to make a career out of either. I often think of photography as a sport. It’s a very physical activity and my analogue cameras are very heavy. To try and manage my body’s ability to work within physically demanding situations, I practice yoga and swim.

Glorious: If so, would you say this influences your work?

Rachel Louise Brown: Yoga and swimming help to keep my mental health in check and provide a space to streamline my thoughts. I often come up with ideas for projects while practising these activities. Sound baths are also amazing to work through a creative block.

Glorious: Can you tell Glorious what you’re working on next and what we can expect from your future projects?

Rachel Louise Brown: I made the exciting jump this summer – after 7 years as Photo Director of Harper’s Bazaar – to concentrate on my photography full-time. I am now a Contributing Photographer for the magazine and have some exciting portraiture shoots coming out in early 2022. A campaign that I shot for the ethical brand Olio is currently whizzling around London on Routemaster buses and I’m working on a large-scale British follow-up to Simulations, called ‘Into the Imaginary’; documenting fantastical environments and characters created in 2021 – 22. I’m inspired by the creativity that has been born in response to the pandemic and currently chronicling it, with the hope to highlight how important escapism and fantasy is for society’s wellbeing during these strange times.

Glorious: Where can we find more about your work?

Rachel Louise Brown: www.Rachel-Brown.com @rachellouisebrown1

glorious rachel louise brown
Kate Shortman + Izzy Thorpe. Team GB, Artistic Swimming for Harper’s Bazaar, 2021.

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