Brittany Markert (“In Rooms”): “Photography Is My Vitality”

A couple of months ago I contacted Brittany, proposing an interview, which she agreed on right away. The incredible photographer and actress based in Brooklyn (NY) succeeded to turn off my superficial, almost childish visions of art fetishism and eroticism. Just after repeatedly reading the interview I realized how little I know, as an outsider to anything artistic, about influences and where the artist suck their inspiration from. Basically, anything I was thinking about depression (or the romanticized, widely spread idea of it), pain, dream and sexuality in art, was simply bullshit. Talking to her really thought me into thinking more than twice before using words and situations I hadn’t experienced myself. Thank you, Brittany!

(c) Brittany Markert, In Rooms series

(c) Brittany Markert, In Rooms series

How did you start in the art business and what was your first area you landed on? Was photography even one of your first choices? I see you’re also a model and an actress.

Scraping for extra cash during college, I responded to an ad on Craigslist looking for a jeans model. At $150/hr, I thought I’d hit the jackpot working two or three hours a week.  Shortly after starting this job, I met and quickly became the muse and lover to a man ten years my senior. He was in art school studying photography, also learning to print in the darkroom. I  spent days on end  at his school, watching him in the darkroom, watching students cut negatives, watching the behaviors of these so called ‘artists’.  I wanted to learn everything. At the time, I was simply following a desire to absorb information. I  continued working with analog photographers throughout my four years studying mathematics.   As mentioned in my artist statement, it wasn’t until I was twenty four that I picked up a camera.

Your early photo artworks are at the limit between macabre (death simulation), mental disorder (apparitions, bipolarity) and tender, almost heart-warming erotica. How did you come up with this unexpected combination?

Startling to see all those words written out together! I can’t say I came up with this combination, it poured out of me.

On the other hand, In Rooms is slightly different, since it was born under a time of solitude. That time spent ‘alone in a cockroach infested apartment’ became your main inspirational source. Is there a deliberate difference, or is it because you evolved as a photographer, changing your views in the process?

For clarification, all of my photography occurred after I spent time isolated in China. I would not say my time there is my main inspirational source, but rather the period in which my pathway to create artwork became clear.  ‘In Rooms’ is a concept I fixated on for years and it finally took life in the winter of 2011.  I consider my ‘early works’ anything prior to Dec16, 2013. All works after, starting with my images “Model for Murder, From the Desk of Todd Hido” and “Face of A Child”, at least to me, are a new chapter of In Rooms.

A part of this difference is my evolution as a woman, a photographer, and a human. The entire year of 2013 is all shit work (apart from the end of the year I mentioned above). 2012 ended with an abortion. Ending that life also coincided with ending an up and down relationship of several years. 2013 started with days in bed crying my eyes out while drawing cut marks up and down my arm in sharpie. I wanted to end the pain.  During this year I was unemployed, I was single for the first time in my adulthood, I was a wreck to put it bluntly. As I slowly developed strength so did my artwork. That year of chaos, pain and struggle is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

What about depression? We usually relate loneliness to depression. Is there more behind that description you’ve already written? If so, is photography or any kind of art you’re practicing a therapeutic method? Does it have healing powers? How did art help you so far?

You’re striking a chord at the heart of my work. Excuse me while I take a few deep breaths!  I am open about my fight with depression, although I don’t think I’ve ever written about it publicly.  Periods of depression are certainly characterized by loneliness, but loneliness and solitude in itself can also promote reflection, growth, and creativity. Loneliness absent of vitality takes us to the core of depression. Several years ago, I watched an inspiring talk by Andrew Solomon called, “Depression, The secret we share”. He spoke of the opposite of depression as ‘vitality’. Photography is my vitality, the entire process of planning, printing and sharing is my lifeline.

If I set up a camera and tripod and pointed it at my real life, my photography would be disappointing.

I did not set out to create work as a therapeutic method. Last spring, a friend of mine brought up Jung’s term ‘shadow work’ in reference to my images. While researching it at home, I cried profusely. Carl Jung wrote, “To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light”, and I can’t agree more.  I like to probe behind the facade of appearances and find out what’s underneath this veil. It’s naughty to me, and at the same time therapeutic and educational to unmask these fabrications.  It’s not uncommon that I lay down, completely exhausted in tears or fits of giggling after shooting. Constructing and photographing a vision from deep within my mind is a release.

Jim Morrison said, ‘Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.’ 

(c) Brittany Markert, In Rooms series

(c) Brittany Markert, In Rooms series

How do you see the concept of pain in art in general? Is it true that nothing valuable comes out of a happy life? Do we really need to suffer in order to create something truly valuable?

I think first of my time studying mathematics. The joy I had was not staring at already-solved equations. The surge of vitality through my being came from attacking a very difficult problem and finding a solution.  Similarly,  I am not interested in happiness or streams of contentedness for my work. I want to find a solution in the chaos, fear and struggle of the human existence. We all suffer, we all experience pain. Humans are comforted to relate to others’ pain. When we see pain in artwork we accept and explore a part of ourselves in pain. Pain in art allows us to confront something we all might not be able to in reality. It pushes us.  When I work with someone, myself included, I want to absorb all their pain, insecurity and torment and turn it into art. Through the process we both leave ‘In Rooms’ as a stronger and more aware version of ourselves.

On to your other question, very valuable things come out of ‘happy lives’. I’m not a fan of the word happy, let’s use vital again. I would say I’m more vital now than usual,  probably the most I have been since childhood.  Even though I’m more vital than say two years ago,  I am not blind to pain, suffering and the shadows of our existence. It’s not a question of do we need to suffer because we all suffer in our own ways.  Life is challenging. Art that represents the human existence should not be blind to this unavoidable, if not predominant part of our journey. 

I obviously watched all your films, just to see what kind of roles you prefer. So far, the every-guy’s-dream girl role seems the most suitable. Are there more future plans or projects in this direction?

Thank you. Yes, dream is the key, reality not so much! It’s fun to turn into this femme fatale in front of the camera and feel invincible. For a brief moment I thought I would become an actress and then a director. Perhaps I will, who knows. I feel like an actress, model and director for In Rooms and I don’t believe photography is my final medium. It can’t be!

Everything you do as an artist is more or less sexual, fetishistic. Is it just an artistic persona (a mask, a role), or are you the same in real life, too? For example, did you ever walk around in the darkroom naked, printing your photographs that way? Did you ever have sex on the set while photo shooting?

I disagree that everything I do is sexual or fetishistic although I can look at just about anything and make it sexual. It’s up to the viewer to create meaning in my work. Certainly I understand a lot of my images as erotic, but at the end of the day I create and make what I have to.

This question is further evidence of an attitude about photography, self portraits, and photographers. I can’t quite wrap my mind around what attitude it is, but it comes up a lot in my train of thought.   Photographers are understood and treated very differently then directors and writers. Subsequently, books and films in relationship to the director and writer are understood very differently too. No one would think to ask Stanley Kubrick, in reaction to The Shining, if he murders people with axes in real life, is an alcoholic or if he has desires to abuse his children. We understand that Kubrick set out to bring a story to life and do not take it as a personal reflection of his day to day routines. 

What mesmerizes us as viewers is when an artist chokes us with his mind and we gasp trying to swallow the damn thing.

Similarly with Stephen King we do not wonder if he buries his pets in cemeteries or if his dogs shows murderous tendencies. It seems silly, but for some reason I’ve found that photographers are treated differently, and self portrait artists even more so. A moment frozen on film becomes understood as reality to some extent, even if it is highly scripted. Plenty of directors make cameos in their films too and it is not a testament of their ‘real life’. I also, like these directors and writers, set out with my work to tell a story, an evolving one at that, and I meticulously  direct each frame. If I set up a camera and tripod and pointed it at my real life, my photography would be disappointing.

 I’m not sure how to address this thought fully, understandably the line between reality and fantasy is confused for many artists. I’ve certainly confused myself about what is reality, what is In Rooms and all in between. When I make my work it feels real, I think for my participants too. Fantasy and reality become one and the same thing.  What is reality and what is simply a fabrication of the mind? I find this question endlessly fascinating and hope to see reality through the imaginary “In Rooms”.  I enjoy people questioning what is real in my work and what is real about my character. Mystery speaks volumes.

What’s the most odd or bizarre habit you have while taking pictures (I don’t know, eating shrimps from model’s belly – alike habits)?

I have not tried eating shrimps from a model’s belly, perhaps I should. I do giggle like a thirteen year old evil schoolboy every time I take what I think is a good picture. I try to control these bursts of excitement, but they are mostly unstoppable.

(c) Brittany Markert, In Rooms series

(c) Brittany Markert, In Rooms series

Would you say art must be authentic, in order to reveal the real self of the artist, or must it be misleading (a lie) in order to increase the creative aspect, the imagination? Can an artwork be authentic if it hides the real character of the artist?

For art to be authentic, the artist must create something meaningful to them. I see a lot of artists trying to create in the style of someone else, sometimes even recreate an image, and we, the viewers, see right through it. Sometimes it’s pleasing, but it’s shallow. Only the artist knows what is true in their mind, what they think about when no one else is around. If I had to give advice to any artist it would be to simply be you, not who others think you are, not who you think you should be, but be who you are and let it all out.

Let’s say I observe a person with a black hooded jacket standing alone at a subway station, his back to me, his head bent and seemingly pressed into the wall.  I halt mid step and feel my being light up with emotion. My mind is transported to a dimly lit red hallway with black hooded and faceless creatures seeping out of the walls. Now I create this image, and it might be the most authentic piece of artwork I achieve. The authenticity is not related to the reality of my life, but rather my mind. Staying true to my imagination, both the emotions and visuals are very different than revealing my ‘real self’.   The authenticity of an artwork lies in staying rigidly true to the artist’s imaginary vision, never mind how much it hides or reveals her real world self. The real character of the artist becomes irrelevant (which is why I avoided your earlier question about my sexual habits on set). What mesmerizes us as viewers is when an artist chokes us with his mind and we gasp trying to swallow the damn thing.

Check Brittany’s artworks on her website, Facebook and follow her on Instagram.


This interview was first published on the 3’rd issue of Cultartes Magazine. Read and download the issue for free. Support unconventional art by sharing the issue.

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Romanian self-taught writer, based in Cyprus, interested in contemporary art, unconventional culture and gonzo journalism. Writing for almost a decade, he is agnostic, supports a censorship-free society and reads way less than he wants.

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