If looking at Alison Brady’s photographs makes you inexplicably uncomfortable, then she has accomplished her goal. Her images are carefully structured to blend the familiar with the unknown — antique furniture and vintage fabrics juxtaposed with unnaturally twisted body forms — with the hope of getting viewers to ask one question: “I know these objects, but why does this all feel so foreign?”
Ms. Brady’s quest to create images that explore her feelings between conscious and subconscious thoughts began several years ago when she learned that her brother had been told he had schizophrenia. She was studying photography at New York City’s School of Visual Arts, but the idea of her reality being distorted by mental illness left her in a constant state of fear.
“It was a feeling of being normal and everything being O.K. to everything changing,” she said. “I started developing this fear, like, what if one day the reality I knew just changed?”
So she began to delve into her feelings through images. Reflecting on her childhood home in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ms. Brady remembers a house overdone with 70s décor, accented with colorful patterns and uncomfortable textures. To set up most of her shots, she also found everyday household objects — dirty bed sheets, cotton balls, pillows, carpets, fake flowers — which she used with the printed fabrics to create a feeling of nostalgia and familiarity.
To trigger more unnerving feelings, she would then place her subjects in distressing positions, often effacing or concealing their faces.
“What I try to do is bring you in with beautiful colors and textures and then leave you feeling like something is wrong here, something is not quite right,” Ms. Brady said. “I think we can all relate to that feeling.”
For the past eight years, Ms. Brady, 33, has traveled between New York, where she lives, to more remote locations in Pennsylvania and Ohio to set up her photographs, seeking settings that are naturally weathered to encapsulate the emotion of a long-forgotten memory.
To create one of her images (Slide 4), Ms. Brady booked a room at an old pay-by-the-hour motel in New York, known at the time for being a common spot for drug users. Her subject is seen lying face down on a circular bed in a dirty motel room with her feet lifelessly hanging off the edge of the bed. An old push-button telephone is closely placed next to an empty ashtray. The bedspread, with the common print of motels, is stained and torn.
Ms. Brady liked the idea of going to the motel, specifically for the old-fashioned circular bed. She said the shape helped create the feeling of despair in the woman.
“This was the weirdest place I ever photographed,” she said. “Whenever we moved anything, we would find used condoms and syringes. But this image was about just giving up and being sort of exhausted. It was about just letting go.”
With her photographs, Ms. Brady also uses her subjects to question female identity, sexuality and standards of beauty — an issue she often questioned growing up in a conservative Roman Catholic household.
In one portrait series, Ms. Brady places her subjects in colorful vintage dresses and poses them with erect postures with their hands modestly folded in their laps. Tiny flowers are carefully placed over the subject’s faces, concealing any identity or expression. The idea for this series, Ms. Brady explained, was inspired by a woman she saw applying makeup on the train one day.
“This girl was putting on a ridiculous amount of makeup,” she said. “It felt like she was hiding who she was. I thought, how do you take that idea of trying to hide yourself, but wanting to present yourself as beautiful? This was just an exaggeration of that feeling.”
Ms. Brady finds that guarding her subjects’ faces allows her viewers to focus on the gestures and subtle details of their body language. She considers her work a combination of photography, still life and art and is currently working on a 30-minute video installation that will expand her work in moving form.
Although some of her work has dark and uncomfortable subject matter, Ms. Brady hopes that people will also see the humor in most of the situations.
“Using humor to defuse a tense situation is something that has definitely become part of my life,” she said. “Dealing with a situation and still being able to laugh or understand what is going on in your own unconscious, and still being able to see a lighter side to it.” (via NY Times Lens Blog)