To call California-based artist Shannon Brooke a pin-up photographer is an accurate yet deceptive label. Yes, Shannon creates exquisite images of the classic cheesecake model — but there is a voice of experimentation beyond history to her photographs of the modern-day pin-up. As Camp Out Magazine Editor-in-Chief Christine Fury explains, “Pin-up has gone through its fair share of having people turn their noses up to it, something photographers didn’t want to shoot, yet Shannon never shied away from its “cheese.” Instead, she continued to shoot extremely classically stunning images and pushing boundaries to create a modern pinup.”
Shannon’s camera is guided solely by her subject matter — women. She delivers her models as monuments of beauty, power, and strength. Shannon may craft an involved set or bring in a classic hot rod into her work, but each is there to uplift the female form. She understands how to deliver an image with clarity and depth beyond labels.
CJ: How have you been doing during this time of quarantine beyond just day-to-day living? I know it deadened the inspiration and motivation for a lot of artists. Was work a priority for you, or were you able to take some time for yourself?
SB: In the beginning, when this hit, I obviously was really scared just seeing what was happening in the world on TV. It freaked me out and the best thing obviously to do was to stay home, so I was not working for a couple of months, which was fine. I was able to take a minute and reanalyze my business. I was always so busy before that I was just booking shoots, not thinking about what I wanted to do moving forward. Finally, I just came to a pause and I really had to think about how I’m going to make money while this is happening, which was scary. I also reflected upon how unhappy, I guess, I’ve been.
I don’t think it has anything to do with shooting, I think it has a lot to do with just getting older and this job is very physical. In the last couple of years, I just get tired faster when I’m shooting. It just takes a lot of energy to mentally photograph people and make them feel good on top of thinking technically about what I’m doing. It’s a lot of work, but because of how much work and bookings that I was taking in I noticed I started to complain a lot like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Not this meaning photography, I just meant booking shoots for a rate that I felt like I was always broke but I was busy all the time. I had no money.
Finally, I can say after twenty-one plus years of shooting and paying my dues — trade shoots, cheap shoots, and things like that, I decided to try and give myself a raise, a nice raise. I did that. My overhead is a lot more now. I have a studio. I have to hire assistants to come help me. Makeup and hair, prices are rising. Obviously, they would. It was time to raise my prices and stop booking so often.
I’ve actually been inspired during the quarantine. I didn’t realize after all this time went by, all these years of shooting, I finally have a name where I feel like I can have merchandise and sell it and people want to buy prints and stuff like that. That’s been really inspiring and super fun to do. People are very supportive right now, which I’m super grateful for.
I was very inspired by having to stay home and not do a bunch of stuff. Work is a priority because clearly, I have to pay rent. That has definitely been a priority to keep moving forward with my business as it has changed as a whole. I am a one-woman show over here running my own photography business, so I get busy and I have to try to prioritize. Hopefully, in the future, I’ll have a full-time person to help me do all these things. At the moment, I’m keeping my crew really small, a skeleton crew, just to be able to work and keep everyone safer with fewer people on set. I’m in my makeshift office at my house. I do have a studio in downtown Sacramento. I’ve been working from home just because I’m here, my boyfriend’s here. It’s easier just to stay home and do the computer work.
She is an incredible artist. I’m working with a skeleton crew right now. I’ve been shooting throughout quarantine, so it’s easy to wear a mask. I take my temperature. I take other people’s temperatures. At the studio where we were shooting with Arabelle, they were also taking temperatures. We weren’t crowding in the makeup room together. Everyone just has to be respectful and give everyone space.
I think it’s good practice in general, especially when you’re photographing nudes, to be polite, keep your distance, just care about everyone’s space in general. I guess it hasn’t felt that different except for when I do wear a mask and I’m shooting it fogs up my camera. I’ve tried so many different masks and that has been terrible because I can’t see when I shoot half the time. That has been something that really bothers me, that I have to pull down my mask every once in a while, as long as I’m far enough away from someone to be able to shoot.
She’s fantastic, I love her. She is so sweet. Before I met her, I saw her on Instagram just to see who I was shooting for Camp Out. She was just so smart and sassy. I was like, “Wow, she’s powerful.” I was a little nervous to meet her because she was just so confident and cool and smart. I love smart girls. Then at the shoot, her Instagram personality is so different from when you meet her in person. She’s so gentle and so sweet. She’s still smart and funny and all those things but I was like, “Oh, you’re a gentle little cupcake. I love you.”
Are you usually shooting on film? Is there an advantage of film over digital?
Actually, I shoot digital. That is my main format. I’m not going to claim that I shoot film. I did start on film. I learned on film. I can shoot film. Recently, I’ve been reinspired to shoot film because I’m an artist and I like different formats and it has just reinspired me. I’m only shooting film when I’m shooting something for myself. I’m shooting with, like, four different cameras right now. I’m shooting Polaroid. I’m shooting a point and shoot from the 80S 35 millimeter and then I have a Minolta 35 millimeter manual that I have been also shooting with just for fun.
When you shoot digitally, you get to see what you’re shooting right away and you don’t have to worry about wasting money on film, not knowing if your exposures are okay. I did learn on film, so I do know how to expose properly. I know about pushing and pulling in developing in case I’m like, “I think these need to be a little bit brighter.” I can just push them in developing. I just love both so much. I love shooting. I love cameras. I’m not a purist. I’m not film over digital. I love photographs. If there’s a new camera, I want to try it. If there’s an old camera, I want to try it. I love instant film. I’m just a fan of both.
Does the format you’re shooting dictate how the shoot goes?
I guess if I’m shooting film, I prefer to shoot continuous lighting or natural lighting. Flash can be unpredictable if you can’t see what is going on. Also, if you’re shooting film, when I was in school and I was learning on film, you would have film backs for your cameras so you can test with a Polaroid how your exposure looked. There are ways to see what you’re doing when you’re shooting film too.
For a series like Floral Fantasy with Porcelain, are you working with her on a specific mood and environment for her to exist in, or does that come solely from you and you share it with the model on the day of the shoot?
I work based on inspiration. I usually dig through a bunch of artwork and old photos and wardrobe to get my inspiration. For that one with Porcelain, she was working on a costume and I had just bought this Victorian couch. It kind of just came together as it did and I like to add magic to my shoots if I can, so I thought about adding some atmosphere with the smoke. The Victorian couch was already really torn up. I don’t know how to restore furniture, but it was pretty bad, so I just bought fake flowers and just poked them in the couch.
Usually, I’ll have a vision and then I share that with my team, and I trust other artists in the way they want to execute something. I trust them to do their best work. That’s why I hire them, because I like their work.
You’ve shot with the model Demerie Leigh (aka BabyGunk on Instagram) quite a few times now. She has a certain darkness that is ever-present, a beautified goth presence. When you work with a model that has an established look, are you looking to play with that look, heighten it, or do something entirely different and subvert expectations?
I think that her brand started goth, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing a person is. When I met her, it was on a shoot that was very fashion-forward, for a hairstylist, for their cut and color book, so I just was inspired by her face and the way she moved. She’s super professional. She has great style. She can style herself so many different ways and she has such a good eye for it, and that’s really inspiring. I always know she’s going to bring really fantastic wardrobe to the shoot.
She also has good visions and when I have an idea, she’s really good at understanding where I’m coming from with it. I think that’s just part of being a creative is you find people that you jibe with. Sometimes you don’t jive with people and it happens. It’s weird because you’ll see somebody on Instagram or something and you’re like, “Oh my God, I love what they’re about.” Then maybe in person, when you’re trying to work with someone, it could be a personality thing, it could be a style thing. It could be the way you work. It could be so many things.
Demerie, BabyGunk, is somebody that jives with me very, very well when it comes to creativity and also the way she works versus the way I work. She takes direction really well and she also knows how to move on her own. I really like those things about her and I’m going to continue to make work with her because she makes me happy.
I often see the same group of models in your work. Do you prefer models you’ve worked before?
I’m aware of that when I meet someone and I work well with them and I like them, I like to keep the people that I work well with creatively, close. I haven’t found it to be easy, so when I do find those people, I hold close to them. I am loyal and respectful. If someone’s a good person and I get along with them well, and they’re great on set and they inspire my makeup artists, I’m just going to keep them close.
When you’re shooting a model you’ve shot times before, how do you keep it new and exciting for both of you?
I think that’s just styling and lighting and sharing inspiration with each other. Just to clarify, they’re models and they come naturally-faced and you should be able to paint your creative fantasy with them. I, as a photographer, should be able to direct them and inspire them to play that part. I hope that makes sense.
When working with models for your own personal projects, are you looking to hire models that fit your vision, or are you structuring your vision to accommodate the models you have available?
I want to work with people I just like being around. Sometimes I’m looking for somebody that fits the vision, but you could present anything. If you have a good model, you could have an idea and they should be able to present that idea for you. Most of the time I do stick close to the people I trust and love to bring them into my space and my studio.
I’m just a very private artist. I don’t like a lot of stuff happening around me when I’m trying to shoot. I get very distracted by everything and I just really need to focus, and I want the model to focus so I don’t really like there to be a lot of things happening around me.
What was the inspiration for your book, Vroom? Cars and pinups are a classic combination. Are you a car enthusiast first and pinup fan, second?
No, I’m a pin-up fan, first. I shoot cars because they’re great props for the models. My dad works on cars and I’ve been surrounded by cars my whole life so I’m very comfortable around cars. I think that’s where that stems from. I don’t like saying I don’t know a lot about something, but just technically I don’t know a lot about cars. I like the way there are so many different ways you can pose a girl with a car. They can lean on a car. They can pose in front of a car, the lines of a car, and then the lines of a girl are very similar. Lighting on the inside of a car, natural light, is so amazing. I love that it says adventure. I love that it says sexy because you have this big hunk of metal and then you have this soft curvy person. I like the combination of those two.
My very, very first shoot when I was in college, I think it was 2003, I did shoot one of my best friends as a pin-up girl. My friend just happened to have a hot rod and I was like, “Oh, this would be a cool idea.” Ever since then, I just fell in love with it. It was just so easy to pose her with the car. There are so many different things you can do. Then I started shooting for Deadbeat Magazine out of Australia, which is a custom culture magazine that featured cars on all the covers. From that experience, I just had a lot of connections to the hot ride scene.
I still consider myself an outsider in that scene because I’m trying to make art with the girl, and I don’t prioritize the car. I don’t mean that to be offensive to the car owner. I photograph people and I’m there to make the girl feel good. The car is a prop. I’ve had so many pictures with girls and cars and I was like, “Oh, this is a good theme.” Working Class Publishing wanted to make that book. They really liked the photos that I’ve done with cars and I was down. I love working with them. Anything they want to do with me, I am going to do it with them. They’re my favorite company to work with and I love our relationship. It’s awesome.
I always think of your work as fine art, but realize at times you’re shooting for a product, clothes, makeup, et cetera. The work is so incredible overall that an advertisement disappears and it’s just art. How do you ride that balance between giving the client what they want and also creating something that fits within your vision?
I actually went to Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. I graduated from there with a degree in commercial advertising, so I learned how to shoot to sell things. Then I learned how to do product placement. I feel like my girls are my product placement and this is what I’m selling. This incredible person in front of my camera. Most clients are hiring me for what they already see in my portfolio, so they know what they’re going to get.
I love working with an art director. I can definitely work together with someone that has a vision, obviously, that is trying to sell a product. They know what my work looks like and I’m able to tweak things as we shoot and things like that.
I have quite a few of your prints and there’s a lot of depth to them that is lost when viewing on social media, are you doing the printing yourself? How do you prefer your work to be experienced? In a gallery or in a magazine?
I do feel like social media is such a terrible way to showcase artwork in general, unless you are a social media person, and you shoot for social media. I am grateful for the platforms, that they’re there and they’re free and I can share my work with the world. I think that’s awesome and amazing. I do get frustrated because people are seeing a picture that I worked so hard on for weeks and then they see it this big.
If I shoot it not in a square or vertical it’s a bummer, you know? Then of course you get not as many likes just because the format didn’t highlight the photograph. That is frustrating to me. My favorite way to showcase my artwork is definitely large print form in a gallery. I was trained to shoot for print, so I think that’s why my retouching is so detailed and everything because when I was going to school, you turned into print. That’s how you showcased your work.
I do like seeing my work in print and that’s how I want others to see it. Moving forward, I want that to be part of my business plan, which is to do gallery shows. I love it. I don’t love my work in a magazine. I’m not going to lie about that. I did go to school for this so I do know about printing and Working Class Publishing knows how picky I am about print. I feel so bad for them. I was so picky about everything with those books. I do know a lot about print, so I know how to prepare my files to go to print.
The sad thing is most magazines don’t have their customized printer profile to send to me. Usually, when I get a magazine, it doesn’t look the way I wanted it to look. The colors, the contrast. It just depends on how the quality is of the paper and the dots per inch and everything. I do prefer to do a gallery type of showcase. I feel like I sound like such a brat. Well, I am, and that’s okay.
Do you do gallery events and also live tutorials for aspiring photographers and models? Are these self-initiated projects or are venues coming to you for these types of things?
Sometimes I have venues come to me. Recently, last Halloween 2019, I had a show at Fortune Emporium that my friend Nadia owned. It is not there anymore. It was so much fun and I will treasure that for the rest of my life. Every time I think about it, it brings me so much joy. I hope I will be able to do that again in the future.
I’ve done two classes, and I loved them both times. I would love to do that again when I can. I have a lot of experience and I spent an ungodly amount of money on school. Honestly, I’m so glad that I did it. It was the best decision I ever made in my life to go to school, but not everyone has the means to do that, and I’m going to be paying for that for the rest of my life. I would like to offer these classes and share what I do know through experience and what I learned from school. I feel like unless you’re going to an art school, there’s not a lot of ways to learn the business and about contracts and set etiquette. That’s such a big thing. How do you even learn about that unless it’s through experience and getting in trouble and then being like, “Oh yeah, I can’t do that.”
That is something I really like to teach. I will be doing classes 100% when we can again. I thought about doing it online. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I like live tutorials. I have a stylist and a well-known model teach a section. I was even teaching people how to take a good selfie and a cheap light set that really works for them. Hopefully, I can get back to doing that because I really love teaching. I love it, even though sometimes people might not even understand what I’m saying. I still want to help. I want to answer your questions.
I noticed you do a lot of work out of Sacramento. I grew up there and it’s cool to see something creative coming out of that city. Is there a good scene for the pinup art community in Sacramento? Do you find yourself needing to travel to reach models or are most local?
I’m actually from Orange County, Laguna Beach, and the Lake Forest area. Then I went to college in Santa Barbara and I did a lot of moving around. I lived in the Mojave Desert and I lived in Palm Springs. I lived in Oxnard. I lived everywhere, but I ended up in Sacramento. Once I moved here, I just felt like this was home. I love Downtown. I’m just in love with it. I don’t know what it is exactly, but it’s a city, but it has a small feel still and it doesn’t stress me out. I still like being in a city, but I don’t want to be stressed out. I feel like that’s what Sacramento has. There’s a big photography community here. There is a pinup scene. There are a couple of pinup girl clubs and stuff like that, car clubs. I don’t really need to group with other people, other photographers, or niche things to be inspired. It’s not really about that for me. It’s about connections with a few people that I like to work with and talk with. I keep a small family and it’s just overwhelming for me.
I have a little bit of social anxiety, so I’m not super social and I don’t want to be part of any club or anything like that. I’m not a shut-in artist because I do travel a lot. I love traveling. I guess I feel like when there are little communities like that, it’s good for a certain personality type. I feel like I’m super scared of drama. I’m scared of getting caught up and being too personal.