Four tiny mice, tails thinner than licorice laces, nibble seeds in the corner of the acrylic pet tote Claire Rosen holds in her slender hands. “I named them after my sisters,” Rosen confides, scooping the smallest, Lillie, from the box to nestle on the front of the petticoat-bolstered dress she’s wearing to match the Marie-Antoinette-meets-The-Borrowers-meets-The-Tailor-of-Gloucester photo shoot we are about to start. I say “we” because 31-year-old Rosen’s enthusiasm about her photo projects is so infectious, it’s nearly impossible to stand at the edge without jumping in. “Do you want to hold a mouse?” she asks. Of course I do.
It is late morning. Sunshine streams in. Throughout Rosen’s Montclair, New Jersey, carriage house, antique curio cabinets overflow with odd bits of taxidermy, faucet knobs and parasols, bird nests and buttons, devil masks and doll heads. Hovering at this shelf and then that, Claire magpies about, gathering bits and pieces to add to the mouse-sized banquet table she’s made from a gold-swagged Ladurée macaronbox. Around it, pincushion tuffets, doll-furniture settees and teensy platters of cheese await the mice, the newest group of animals to be treated to a Claire Rosen Fantastical Feast.
The feasts—banqueting beasts photographed around elaborate tables filled with the foods each species loves—are Rosen’s most encompassing photo fixation yet. Thus far, shoots have included tapirs and sloths in the Amazon, goats in Sarajevo, and elephants in New Jersey. And if a new proposal pans out, Rosen will take the show on the road in a traveling exhibit to include “participatory installation” benefit banquets in collaboration with famous chefs at each international locale.
“It’s very inspiring to watch her brainstorming as she translates her vision into photographs,” says Ron Haviv, New York photojournalist and owner of the VII photo agency. Haviv is filming Rosen at work and has animal-wrangled and assisted on many of her feast shoots. “Her approach to photography is the opposite of what I do,” he says.
“I’ve never looked at a camera as a documentary tool,” Rosen explains, fingering silk ribbons she hopes to tie on the mouse tails. “Even in the beginning, when I would drape my little sisters in sheets and have them pose as Greek goddesses in the backyard, I always wanted to set things up to create my own world,” she says. “I want people to be swept away by the story in the image, deeply engaged so that even after they walk away, the image lingers.”
A FAIRY-TALE WORLD
Rosen’s world does that. It’s a fairy-tale place at once dreamily whimsical and darkly alluring, oddly familiar and freshly exciting. You glimpse it in all of her richly luminous images, be they commissioned photographs of Alex Randall chandeliers shot at night in Cornwall, England’s haunted Bodmin Jail, Ryan Wilde Millinery modeled to an Edward Gorey theme, opulent marketing photographs of Pre-Raphaelite-looking models taken at a hotel in Dubai, or any of the feast and fairy-tale artwork series she creates using found objects and taxidermy.
“Claire definitely has an old soul and a very deep and visceral connection to things past,” says Jeff Campagna, associate photo editor for Smithsonian magazine. “She really digs in and researches the subject matter, creating a whole little world from scratch for the object she will be bringing to life.”
Talking about Martha, the last passenger pigeon, a recent National Treasure feature that Rosen shot, Campagna says, “Claire’s enthusiasm was palpable. There she was, up on a table constructing a beautiful miniature set to replicate John James Audubon’s illustration, all the while discussing the finer points of taxidermy with the museum curators.”
There is an uncanny continuity both to Rosen’s work and to the things that clients, mentors and associates say about her. All of them talk about feeling a near-immediate connection with the photographer and about her unassuming accessibility, intensity of vision, work ethic and impeccable workmanship.
“We instantly artistically fell in love and have worked together ever since,” says Ryan Wilde, millinery director at the JJ Hat Center in New York City, for whom Rosen has created many lookbooks. She also created an alphabetical series of hat photos playfully reminiscent of Edward Gorey illustrations for Wilde. “Claire is incredibly skilled, leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of perfection,” says Wilde. “And don’t be fooled by the fairy-tale essence—I’ve seen Claire wrangle an enormous amount of assistants. She’s definitely the ruler of her domain. People take her very seriously.”
“We immediately clicked,” agrees Becci Manson, expert New York City retoucher, who has worked with Rosen on the feast series. “Claire has this intoxicating creative energy about her that is very addictive. It’s not forced or manufactured. It’s just Claire. I think that’s why her stuff is so magical—she just lets herself come through.”
Ditto, says Heidi Aishman, an Atlanta-based curator who brought Rosen’s Birds of a Feather series to the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery there. Aishman is now working on a new proposal around Rosen’s Fantastical Feast series. “With Claire, it’s immediate. You meet her, you see her work and it’s very clear that it’s her voice coming out of these photographs. And she’s just so beautifully professional. The quality of what she creates is not something you often see from a young, emerging artist.”
Discussing the Birds of a Feather series, Aishman says it was the thought behind the work that was so interesting. “She saw these birds and then had the vision to photograph them in relationship to this vintage wallpaper, resulting in animal portraits that feel like they capture a disappearing culture.”
Rosen’s gift for fast connection with people has helped her produce a lot of work, quickly. One example? In a matter of minutes, New York restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld met Rosen and commissioned her to do a Fantastical Feast of ducks for his made-to-order cocktail bar and restaurant Decoy. “I looked at her feast imagery and said, ‘It would be fantastic if I could get a photo of a bunch of ducks feasting in a similar mode,’” Schoenfeld remembers. “In less than a week she met me, saw the space, arranged the shoot at a duck farm, wrangled assistants and shaped the piece like a seventeenth-century painting of a Flemish last supper that is perfect for the space.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the path that led Rosen to find her vision started with story. Lots and lots of it. “My mom read tons of fairy tales to me growing up,” she recalls. “The original Alice in Wonderland, the Arthur Rackham illustrated Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the Wizard of Oz books, Beatrix Potter.” A culinary historian, with a special flair for Victorian-era cake baking, Dolly Rosen “always went out of her way to make everything special. Birthdays were magical, with geisha, clown, wonderland and Oz themes,” Claire remembers. Her father, Edward, a banking and intellectual property lawyer, interested her in philosophy and the Socratic method. Trips to the circus and museums were frequent, shaping Rosen’s abiding love for art history and taxidermy. “I would cry after leaving the museum when I was little because I wanted to live in the dioramas with the animals,” Rosen recalls with a laugh.
But Rosen hit a rough patch as a teen. “I was in such turmoil inside. I had a perfectionistic streak and was really hard on myself,” she says. She dropped out of three high schools before heading to Bard College at Simon’s Rock in the Berkshires. There, she picked up a camera for the first time. “It quite literally gave me a voice when I had none,” she says. “I will never forget the first time I saw an image coming up in the darkroom. I thought, ‘This really is magic.’”
At the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Rosen built her technical skills and met Steve Aishman, a Harvard physicist turned photography instructor—now also dean of academic services at SCAD—who was to become one of her longtime mentors.
Other seminal moments in the photographer’s development include her time in the Joyce Tenneson Studio, at the Maine Media Workshops, in Rockport, where she started reading the works of Carl Jung, Freud, Joseph Campbell and Bruno Bettelheim, which have deeply impacted her work. She met photographer Cig Harvey and other strong female role models there and created her fairy-tale self-portrait series and doll series. “The women I met there charted a path for me on how to reveal my own psychology and emotion in a visually symbolic way that is personal, yet also universal,” says Rosen.
DEPTH OF VISION
But none of these connections would jell were it not for Rosen’s groundedness and depth of vision. “It helps so much to understand where you come from, why you choose the specific things you photograph, and how to set up your life to be as conducive to inspiration and creativity as possible so that you focus on what feels authentic and exciting,” says Rosen.
To get there herself, Rosen spent time with creative consultant Beth Taubner of Mercurylab, who guided her to research her ancestry. “At the time, I had been doing a lot of fashion photography,” Rosen recalls. “I didn’t know anything about my mom’s father, who died when my mom was only sixteen. But in the research process, I discovered that he was a fashion photographer in Hollywood. My uncle sent me photographs my grandfather had taken, and I was amazed. Here were all these photos of women with animals—a woman in a zebra-patterned coat surrounded by zebras, starlets with baby lions eating banana splits—and just months before I had been shooting models with big cats and other animals in a similar way. It felt so validating that I was meant to be a photographer—as if my grandfather had been whispering in my ear the whole time.”
Merging what she learned from her mentors and from her own journey, Rosen teaches workshops that underscore the importance of finding one’s voice and creating a community to help share that voice. “It all stems from the same place of being able to have the kind of life you want and create the work you want,” she concludes. “It’s such a gift. I feel so lucky that this is what I get to do. I mean, playing with elephants and mice, traveling the world, and getting to meet and work with interesting people from all walks of life! Right?!” ca