Gracie Hagen is a self-taught photographer and artist who is currently residing in Chicago, IL. Through self-teaching Gracie has developed a unique aesthetic guided only by her desire to create the type of images that appeal to her. Her work has been featured on The Huffington Post, Beautiful Decay, The Daily Mail, & more. She also runs a commercial portrait studio (Gracie Hagen Photography) where she takes photos of families, couples & pets.
It is the honesty that draws her to photography & videography. The interesting complexity in people is what compels her to use the human form as the predominant subject. In her work she tries to capture questions about who we are & how we see ourselves. Her images serve to expose the open, vulnerable, & sometimes uncomfortable realities of our hidden nature. This process, revealing elements of our shared humanity, is fascinating; it allows her to simultaneously explore & illustrate feelings through her art while provoking social discourse.
She wants her work to show the core commonalities beneath our vast diversity. As such, her projects often features series where the angles, poses, & backdrops are unifying while the unique models & faces are as varied as humanity itself. We are all the same. We are all different. Even though multiple series contain unrelated themes, they are all illustrating unique parts of the same body.
Join us for quite an insightful interview with Gracie Hagen. She talks with us about many of her different series such as “Illusions of the Body”, “No Judgements Here”, and “Secretomotor Phenomenon.” She also shows us a before/after of her work, talks about how she goes about selecting models for particular series, and much more. Enjoy!
*interview contains NSFW content and nudity
In the beginning your interest of photography came from your interest in film. With that said how did your interest in film develop, and tell us about how your interest shifted from videography to photography.
My interest in films started as the art medium that was the most accessible for me. Someone showed me David Lynch, Jean-Pierre Jeaunet & Tom Tykwer films & I realized that movies didn’t need to be one type of thing, it could be art & it fascinated me. What shifted my focus from video to photography is that taking photos was just an easier thing to tackle. I picked it up to start practicing framing and post production & discovered how fast I could get an end product; and the amount of work I had to put into it was less stress inducing. Sad to say, due to laziness I went to photography. But my goal for this year was to do more shorts. I have one in the works currently, which is exciting.
Do you have any formal training in photography or do you consider yourself self-taught for the most part?
No formal training in anything really. Utilized the internet, people & my drive to learn things I’m interested in.
If you are self taught, what were some of the most useful techniques that you found in your phase of experimentation?
Trial & error. Don’t hesitate to do something because you don’t fully know how to do it yet, how are you going to learn if you don’t try anything. Nothing you do the first time is going to be perfect, the things you learn from your errors are invaluable.
Within your photography you create and offer to clients both commercial and fine art photography. Tell us about your decision to expand to private clients?
Hah, because monetizing art is hard & a girls gotta eat. So I started Gracie Hagen Photography, my commercial portrait studio. I like the challenge to try and bridge the gap between commercial & art, what can I get away with, what is too much etc. Sometimes working within boundaries creates something special.
Illusions of the Body
“This series was made to tackle the supposed norms of what we think our bodies are supposed to look like. Most of us realize that the media displays only the prettiest photos of people, yet we compare ourselves to those images. We never get to see those photos juxtaposed against a picture of that same person looking unflattering. That contrast would help a lot of body image issues we as a culture have.
Imagery in the media is an illusion built upon lighting, angles & photoshop. People can look extremely attractive under the right circumstances & two seconds later transform into something completely different.
Within the series I tried to get a range of body types, ethnicities & genders to show how everyone is a different shape & size; there is no “normal”. Each photo was taken with the same lighting & the same angle.
Celebrate your shapes, sizes & the odd contortions your body can get itself into. The human body is a weird & beautiful thing.”
What was the first photo created for the series “Illusions of the Body”? At the time of creating the first photo, was your intention to make this project such a large series?
Maybe it’s just my experience with art but I find that the idea you start with in the beginning is never what you end up with in the end, it might have remnants of the idea but never is the same. So to answer your question, no.
How did you go about your selection of models? Friends? Models? Volunteers? Or all of the above?
All of the above; friends, models, Craigslist, people who emailed me after the series went viral asking to be involved. I had lot os people who didn’t live near me wanting to be involved, France, Italy, I think even the Ukraine… it was pretty special to get those emails.
This series of photos gained popularity on the internet very quickly. I am not surprised because, look at the series. It’s fantastic!
How did you respond to this reaction on the internet? Whether it be good (like being featured on websites such as BuzzFeed, Beautiful/Decay, and FStoppers) or bad (like being censored on Facebook)?
Well I love the fact that it picked up so much traction, it caused the series to gain way more bodies in the series & created the opportunity to make a book of the series. The book, ingeniously titled “Illusions of the Body” features a lot of the people who emailed in to be apart of it. 41 people were photographed, 24 are available online & the last 17 are only available in the book, go to IllusionsOfTheBody.com to purchase. I stopped reading the comment section pretty quickly (starting with Huffington Post) because some people are full of negativity & I don’t need to look at it. If someone has some constructive criticism I’m more than willing to hear it but usually the comment section isn’t really the place for that. & as for being censored on Facebook, it was a bit annoying but I took it with stride. We live in a society that deems most nudity as pornography (which is considered bad) so I understand why it was flagged.
That also brings the question of, was this series of work being blocked/censored on Facebook necessarily a bad thing? Would you think that censorship brought more attention to this particular body of work?
I mean when something is censored it creates a controversy over it, creates a “Ooo dangerous” type of aura. Which makes a different audience pay attention to it & makes the people who care about it, talk about it even more, so yay more traffic for me!
What is your favourite photo that you’ve ever taken? (Why?)
That’s a hard question, that’s like asking what is my favorite film, an unanswerable question. Each new series I do is a learning experience & I appreciate the knowledge I’m gaining. I think to date though, the most personal, therefore important to me, series I’ve done was Secretomotor Phenomenon. With the series my goal for me was to try and capture real emotions & how as a photographer, can I facilitate that. Each photo is a headshot of someone crying & each shot was an emotional roller coaster ride for me. I would sometimes cry as I was taking the photos. At the end of the series I did a self portrait of me for it; by that point I had tapped into whatever part of my brain that was the cry epicenter & it took me about 3 seconds to start sobbing. The whole thing was definitely my favorite & most powerful photography experience.
In general, what is your creative process like? Do you like to write out your ideas, sketch them, talk about them, etc?
Write out vague ideas then when I’m bored with a current series, I look at my ideas & tackle the one that it seems like I should do.
And on average how long does it take for you to conceptualize an idea, shoot and do post-processing?
With the direction I want to take my photography, each series is taking longer & longer from concept to final product. I want to capture real people, in their environment, with real emotions. All of those things require WAY more work than having someone come to my house, put up a background & tell them what type of facial expression I want. So I guess my answer is, I don’t have an average yet because I just started doing what I think I’ve been working towards this whole time.
How important is post-processing and Photoshop to your work?
I think that photoshop/post processing is incredibly important. It’s the same as if you were using physical film. You would mess around with chemicals (sadly, I know nothing about the physical film process so pardon my lack of correct terms) in the dark room to create the right look to the image you shot, that’s what you do in Photoshop.
No Judgements Here
“An exploration of fetishes”
One of the most interesting things about this series is that it is a very sexual subject matter, yet the photos don’t come off as “sexy”. It’s very real, very humanizing. Within your work do you always try to depict the nude subject in this way?
I don’t think I try/tried to do that with my nudes (something that was prevalent in my earlier work). I never really wanted to create erotic photographs so maybe that is why they never came off as sexual. I wanted to take pictures of nude bodies because I didn’t think there was anything to be ashamed of, trying to fight against the body shaming we as a culture experience. With this particular series though, I definitely tried to make sure nothing about the image was sexual, I wanted each photo to be an almost visual dictionary definition of each fetish.
Where did your interest in this project come from?
Some random dude, in that creepy random dude sort of way, asked me to take photos of him with these fetishes he was into. I of course did not take him up on the offer but it got me thinking about how there are a lot of fetishes out there that people don’t know about or think are weird, how can I take those photos without people being “eeked” out by them? Obviously I didn’t tackle nearly a percentage of those fetishes but I had fun doing the ones I did.
Tell us about the preparation for this project. How did you go about selection of people for this series? Are all subjects and their fetishes depicted true, or are any created with the help of models?
All of the fetishes in the series are real fetishes people are drawn to/experience. The models for the series don’t necessarily participate in those fetishes though, they’re just the vessel for my vision.
Please tell us about your ongoing series titled “Consenting Combatants”!
It’s my newest series, I’ve always looked down on sports, I think a lot of people in the arts community do. It always seems like a breach of contract or a conflicting interest. I wanted to humanize the fighters, show people in the art community that they’re people too.
“This is an ongoing series about fighters. If you fight in any capacity; jujitsu, muay thai, MMA, boxing etc, please contact me, I would love to take your photo.
Please note, you must be currently fighting & within a couple hours of Chicago.”
Seeing the difference of the fighters side by side before and after a fight is astonishing. Were you also surprised by the results when first creating photographs for this series?
Not particularly surprised, the only sports I do watch is MMA, so I knew that the physical difference would be there. I was definitely intrigued by the emotional difference people go through before and after a match. The adrenaline is up & the weight of winning or losing is apparent. It is almost physical manifestation of someones emotions.
Who are some of your favourite artists and/or photographers?
David Lynch, Jane Campion, Roger Ballen, Lynne Ramsay, Pieter Hugo, Miranda July, Jodi Bieber, Alfred Hitchcock, Lars Von Trier, Stanley Kubrick, Joss Whedon… most of those are directors, but film is still my go to for inspiration & admiration.
What are you currently working on?
I am wrapping up my Consenting Combatants series because I got what I could out of it. I have a couple ideas I am interested in working on, they’re still in the “forming the best way to convey the idea” stage. If you do live in the Chicago area though & know anything about or have contacts that are involved in funeral homes, foster kids or retirement homes, I would love to speak with you – email@example.com
Do you have any advice that you would like to offer us fellow artists and photographers? About art…photography…or life in general?
For photography/art – trial & error & don’t stop. Read that Ira Glass quote, “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
For life – As human beings, we are the same in that we all want the same thing, to be happy & to not suffer. Instead of looking at people & seeing the differences between you & them; look at them from the standpoint of “We want the same thing & they’re moving through life the best way that they can” The way you will treat them & be treated will change drastically. Also empathy & optimism are huge keys to making your life a thousand times better. & everything I just said takes work, lots & lots of work. Almost everything in life worth having takes work though, which makes it interesting.