Interview with photographer, Brooke Hummer by Sherrie Berger.
What was your initial inspiration for this series? A cat lover or an art lover first? I think it’s the magical combination of the two that makes this series so successful. Please discuss this hybrid project.
The initial inspiration came from my Rep, Andrea Donadio who asked me to shoot her holiday promo. She wanted to create a humorous take on the mother/daughter portrait using her cat, Bunny as her child. Initially, we thought I would shoot with the natural, quirky style I use for my lifestyle photography, but it didn’t feel right, so we started researching time-honored mother-child portrait approaches. We were both attracted to the super serious, cartoonish 19th century American folk-art paintings so we chose to mimic that lighting and style. There are specific style similarities in all of the mother-child portraits of that particular period, So, it came together easily. We set it up in the studio and did it in an hour and there’s very little retouching.
After releasing that image, several women came forward, wanting a portrait with their cat. I hadn’t planned to create a series of just copying paintings and adding a cat. I knew however that if and when I did imitate another painting style, it would definitely be the Italian renaissance, having lived in Florence for a year studying my first true love, art history. The whole thing came together when it hit me that painted portraits have always been a symbol of wealth and power but women in the Renaissance were only ever painted because of their attachment to powerful men, or as a bride. The Traditional marriage portrait was always posed in profile to suggest submission. It was considered an affront for a woman to make eye contact. What I loved about Andrea’s portrait is that although the folk-art paintings were clearly honoring women for maternal and submissive piety, Andrea is a single, badass businesswoman who, instead, appears very powerful and independent. In the 19th century (and also in 15th century Italy) the stiff, upright posture was meant to indicate virtue but in Andrea’s case, it was the opposite. Pretty soon, I realized that throughout the entire course of the history of visual art, these details about female portraiture are consistent. I realized I could subvert the sexist stereotype of “Cat Lady,” a term used to shame women, and also reinterpret the way women are portrayed throughout the entire history of western art.
An idea is great but it needs artful execution — and you seem to have achieved both. Can we discuss your process? Your other work seems to have a spontaneity about it, but these portraits succeed due to their formality. Do you find that one style and mode of working feeds the other?
I think it’s obvious that these rely heavily on post-production. Some came really easily and others I tinkered with endlessly and perhaps some aren’t even finished yet. Some are meant to emulate a specific painting and others reference a genre. In most cases, I am adding a modern interpretation, including a cell phone, combat boots, the Chicago skyline instead of the Italian countryside. I try to do as much as possible in camera.
One thing about mimicking historical paintings is that most of the artists are using window light so my approach is pretty straightforward. For the most part, these are all shot with a giant diffused key light and some fill. I also figured out pretty fast that most of the cats get freaked out by strobe so we are mostly using continuous. I’ve both relied on retouchers and done some myself. Initially, I was working with stylist colleagues but then I realized that I am way too specific so I started styling myself. All the hair and make-up have been with Jamie Tannenbaum with the exception of Reba, which was Karen Brody. Darby Clarke has been a huge part of the project because even though she acts as my assistant, she is really more of a collaborator. We have such an easy creative relationship. I have a lot of “rules” about how each piece fits into the feminist messaging of the project, but I keep breaking them. In the end, it’s supposed to be a fun and playful series, not super self-important.
Here are some examples of other Cat Women:
“Cora and Oreo” is inspired by the Ammi Philips painting, “Girl in The Red Dress”. Cora is technically not a woman (she’s 12 years old). But it is really the coolest cat painting ever and I love the subversion of innocent little girl to badass hip chick. The only rule I won’t break is that all the subjects have to be unmarried and female because disrupting the sexist “cat lady” insult is essential.
The Renaissance portrait, which is the second one I did (the profile with the blue sky background), because, well first of all, I love the Renaissance. So of course, if I did another Cat Woman, it was going to have to be the Italian Renaissance. This next one was Lindsey Tyler, a good friend of Andrea’s who a producer at Ad Agency FCB. She loved the first one so much, she’s said, “I want one. I want one.” I never meant for this to be a series but she willed it to happen by asking for the second portrait...
She could be a Medici. I mean it’s that formal.
Right. So that’s what I was going for. Again, that was a really obvious style to imitate because the early marriage portraits were always painted in profile. As the Renaissance progressed, the approach became more three quarters and in later years women made actual eye contact with the viewer (shocking!). There was a lot of ostentation in those wedding portraits. The landscapes in the background were showing off the husband’s property and let’s face it, the brides wearing expensive jewelry are also being presented as the husbands’ property. And so in this one, I integrated the Chicago skyline in the background, which I thought was fun. Instead of Tuscan towers, it’s the Hancock Building and Sears Tower. Lindsay belongs to no one and she owns the whole city (wink, wink).
Lindsey and Andrea have very similar, mutually cool and interesting career paths. I have great admiration for where they are in their lives. So I suddenly saw this entire project as a way to celebrate strong, independent women. They both look so tough, like no one is going to be messing with them or claiming them as property.
Then there was “Kristen and Javi,” which is based on a self-portrait by Gertrude Abecrombie, a surrealist female painter from Chicago. That’s the one with the yellow moon and the blue background. That was another one that broke my rules because I meant for the project to lampoon the male gaze, but I’m in love with Gertrude Abercrombie — and felt compelled to honor her. Plus, Kristen doesn’t actually have a cat but she looks just like the painting! So we borrowed a black cat. Gertrude Ambercrombie was part of the Surrealist movement in Chicago in the 40s and 50s. She was really talented and accomplished but just didn’t ever gain any recognition in her time. Maybe her gender had something to do with that? Hm. I got kind of obsessed with her when the Elmhurst Art Museum featured her work in 2018.
It’s so much fun to discover new work from an artist of another time and to find a new female artist role model. She had a really interesting life. If you know this painting, you will recognize it’s reference immediately. And the fun thing is that in the painting, the cat has his tongue sticking out. No way did I think I would ever capture that and I guess I could have given him a fake tongue in post-production. Usually, we photograph the woman in all the poses and then shoot plates of the cat at the end. It’s always the longest and most challenging part. There are usually millions of creative enticements to get cooperation. On this one, it was crazy. Crazy. Literally in the second frame, the cat sat still and stuck his tongue out and we were all looking at the screen and going, “Did that just happen?” Like I said, some of these came really easily.
The other one that’s a copy of a specific painting is the one of the little girl in the red dress. It’s a really famous American folk art painting and part of that genre is innocent little girls with pantaloons and party dresses. In that particular painting, she’s holding a cat so it was fun to make the reference recognizable.
But her attitude is everything. It’s the perfect adolescent portrait.
Again, in the painting it’s all about innocence and purity. And Cora was just kind of not giving a damn. We put her in the goofy red dress and she was laughing at the whole thing. Those were her boots. She really was that. She’s a funky city kid.
And please tell me about the Gustav Klimt.
That was Julie. I’m just so lucky. I work with so many young talented women in my industry. She does styling and she also owns a vintage clothing store and she’s just this cool, cool woman. She’s also cat crazy and she was saying, she really wanted to be in one of the cat portraits. Any time someone approaches me and wants to be in a cat portrait I’m like, let’s do it. And then we talked about what we wanted to do. She really wanted Klimt. She had this in her head. It totally goes along with her aesthetic, so I got it. If you go into her store, her whole style is very kind of... of 20s and she just loves Klimt. I had to sit on that idea for a really long time. I wasn’t sure I could do that — that’s just… that’s too challenging.
Klimt’s a known misogynist. So, ultimately I got excited about the idea of using his art in this project. He’s best known for The Kiss and his mother/child paintings but when I saw the one of Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes, I knew that was the one. That’s a story that gets told in art again and again. I think the most famous one is by Artemesia Gentileschi. But in this one, she’s looking powerful and aggressive and also erotic. It’s kind of a violent story and I didn’t want it to look like we were cutting off the head of the cat, but the style of the painting — she looks so strong and fierce. That’s totally Julie.
I’m just looking at the integration of the background of the painting into this photo — it is everything. And that’s tricky. You executed it so well.
Well thank you. I definitely did my own take on that one. Probably more than any other, because I couldn’t really copy it and didn’t want to. I just had to kind of get inspired by all of his paintings. And it’s fun because, it’s all doodles. When I was in New York I went to the Neue Gallery and went down the rabbit hole. It was really helpful to just kind of dig into that before I started the project. I still keep on looking at that one though, like, I can fuss around with that one a little more but also, I need to stop and call it done.
And talk to me about Madam X…
There’s a lot of post-production. I mean the dress was basically and black drop cloth. I had to just do that in post-production. I think I was just having fun with it. I felt like I was copying it too close, so I have her holding a little cell phone instead of a book. I don’t know if you know the story of that Madam X portrait. There is one that he painted where her strap had fallen down her shoulder and it was too scandalous so he painted another. Sergeant, again, is another painter who’s all about idealizing feminine beauty. He was known for painting socialites, women who are part of the long tradition of being personified to represent wealth and power, but probably don’t have much agency of their own. The Madam X painting was considered scandalous in it’s time. The model was not one of her usual socialites. She was an American expat, living in Paris and was considered to be “racy” and “loose” (which could also be interpreted as independent and strong). She clearly isn’t being presented as submissive and pure. I like the idea that she was on the other side of the innocence game.
And you’ve got the tattoo and the cell phone as sort of anachronistic references. Then you’ve got these two cat tails that are just crazy, especially in reference to the tattoo. And there’s that blue cast in her inner arm that, as far as bringing forth the spirit of the original, that’s the one that gets me.
In the first few “Cat” photos, I was using stylists, and definitely I was using outside retouchers. And that was, I think, the first one, the Sargeant one, where I just had to do it myself. Because, the stuff that you just referenced was... I just couldn’t even talk about it. It just came to me while I was doing it, like the tail and everything. It was all kind of my own creation, so I just needed to do it myself. After that I think I’ve done most of the retouching myself.
The Fayum mummy portrait, which was early on, that’s Amber who is actually Egyptian and we wanted to do a portrait that referenced her heritage. At first there was the idea of Cleopatra. I was like, no, we’re not going to do it like that… I’m not going to do that. There’s been enough cultural appropriation with Elizabeth Taylor, even though it sounded kind of fun and campy. I realized that if we’re going to do Egypt, we’re going to have to go way back. I got a lot of the elements from the Getty museum. It has an open content program where you can download high res images.
Then there’s the Madonna looking baroque. Would you call that baroque?
Actually, the source is early Christian medieval, also referred to as Gothic, around 12C. Elaine is another colleague. She’s a super talented photographer and digi-tech here in Chicago. I love her. She saw the project when I first posted it and approached me at an industry event. From the get go, we knew we had to go with the gothic, Madonna and Child thing. Her style is kind of “goth” and she was raised Mormon and is fascinated by religious iconography. Her cat’s name is Loki Lucifer. There are SO many paintings we used for reference.
“Reba and Neva”, the woman with satin dress. She was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago and so we thought of making a reference to 19th C colonialist portraiture. I’ve redone it a few times and I think I’m finally finished. I wanted to make sure that her wardrobe looked luscious and indulgent. Reba is a big time chef at a hot Chicago restaurant so she has a kick ass career but her work life “look” is very casual. It was fun to get her in the hair and make up chair with Karen Brody. You can see that she totally owns it.
Any thoughts of future projects? Men? Dogs? I feel that personal projects are critical to the growth of an artist and especially a photographer. Do you consider this series a personal fine art project? If not, where does it fit into your overall photographic career? If yes, are there others planned?
I was thinking that in addition to “Cat Lady” there are so, so many slurs used to disgrace women but for men, the insult words are also back handed compliments, like when you call a guy a “dog” for being a chauvinist, it’s also meant as funny and cool. While researching the Cat Women, I’ve become fascinated as much with art as with wardrobe. I’m intrigued by men’s clothing in the 17th and 18th centuries. In these giant, power portraits, men are dressed — by today’s standards — as completely feminine, wigs, tight pants, ruffles and high heels. I’m thinking that it would be fun to make historical portraits of men with dogs. It could be an interesting commentary on heterosexism, on how vulnerable society is to cultural influences in regard to gender identity.
I’m not sure yet how this personal project fits in with my professional work. I’ve never been drawn to conceptual photography and even though I have a studio in Chicago, I’ve preferred locations and a natural lighting style. I’ve always loved shooting images of people in their most unguarded and “unpackaged” natural state. This project has made me think about studio projects differently. I’ve been brainstorming some fun ideas that I probably wouldn’t have conceived before the time spent on the cat women.
I absolutely love the platform of commercial photography. I love working on big sets and l love our whole community (who I found through APA). Like a lot of photographers, I got here because I identify as an artist. I don’t think I would continue to love my job if I wasn’t constantly inserting my personal vision into projects. I’m super grateful that my job affords me the access and inspiration to pursue personal work and I love that I’m starting to see how one informs the other.