Photographer Rachel Brown gained access to Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach through a member. She posed the member’s daughter at the entrance to the club’s living room. Photo courtesy of Rachel Louise Brown
Drivers passing by The Patriarca Companies building in the daytime probably wouldn’t give it a second glance.
But the unassuming structure at 175 Bradley Place in Palm Beach takes on a different personality at night when used as a backdrop for one of Rachel Brown’s photographs. Then it becomes like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, or perhaps an Edward Hopper painting.
+ Tom Dodson, who responded to Rachel Brown’s ad for volunteers to pose as characters in her photographic tableaus, said he knew
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Brown posed Tom Dodson, someone she’d arranged to meet that night in the Publix parking lot, as a pedestrian frozen in the icy glow of a streetlight against the building’s facade. In front of the figure, an indented entrance throbs with red light, illuminating a door and a bonsai tree.
“The whole thing had this strange, sinister feel,” Brown said. “He turned up with that hair and very groomed. The whole thing just fit.”
The photograph is one of about 30 images Brown selected from the countless pictures she shot as an artist in residence at Palm Beach Photographic Centre in West Palm Beach. They’re on view in Simulations: Photographs by Rachel Louise Brown through April 28 at the center’s museum.
+ Photographer Rachel Brown allowed the young ballerinas at Ballet East in West Palm Beach to pose themselves. Part of her project
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Brown, who hails from Great Britain, where she’s photography director for the British editions of Harper’s Bazaar and Town & Country, visited the center for about two weeks each fall in 2014, 2015 and 2017. During that time, she taught classes, conducted field trips, lectured and produced a body of work.
“What I love about Rachel’s work is its ethereal quality,” said Fatima NeJame, president and chief executive officer. “It’s very different and very artistic.”
Brown is the last of the center’s artists in residence, as it’s lost its free housing for the artists and can’t afford to rent it, NeJame said.
The unease that permeates the photograph of Dodson is exactly the feeling she aimed for.
“I worked with the head space of tension to create a cinematic tableau of a place,” she said. “It’s always a place that’s unfamiliar and foreign to me.”
She added to the discomfort by frequently working at night, either alone or with a stranger who’d responded to her ad seeking models.
She was fascinated by Florida’s image as a paradise and a symbol of the American dream, a point of view that comes through in the images and the show’s title — Simulations.
“The whole thing here is how we fake reality and build environments that enhance escapism,” she said.
Brown gained access to one of Palm Beach’s most famous fantasy getaways — Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago — through a member who replied to her ad.
The member met her at the private club with her daughter, whose long blonde tresses and white dress were a perfect complement to the luminous light and gold cherubs decorating the entrance to the living room.
“Basically, what draws me is the lighting,” Brown said.
That’s one of the reasons she uses a medium-format film camera rather than a digital camera. “When you photograph on film it becomes painterly,” she said.
+ Rachel Brown shot this self-portrait in The Breakers’ Mediterranean Ballroom. Courtesy of Rachel Louise Brown
Brown used The Breakers’ Mediterranean Ballroom as the setting for the self-portrait she always shoots during an artist residency. She borrowed a long silk evening gown from The Church Mouse for the photo.
As she posed, “I imagined I was this woman who owned the dress dancing,” she said. The skirt looks like a hummingbird’s wings in the picture.
+ “This child-like fairground during the day becomes magical at night,” photographer Rachel Brown said of the carousel at the Palm Beach
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Brown didn’t confine herself to Palm Beach. Other places shot include the Palm Beach Zoo, the streets of West Palm Beach, Fright Nights at the South Florida Fairgrounds, a ballet studio in West Palm Beach and Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Spring Hill, where she captured the famous mermaid show.
The mermaid show “symbolizes everything this show is about,” Brown said. “It’s a simulated environment that’s been going on for 70 years.”
+ Florida’s long history of catering to tourists’ fantasies is embodied in Rachel Brown’s photograph of the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee
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+ Photographer Rachel Brown calls this photograph The Lobster Girl. The haunted houses at Fright Nights at the South Florida Fairgrounds were
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If You Go
What: Simulations: Photographs by Rachel Louise Brown
When: Through April 28
Where: Palm Beach Photographic Centre, 415 Clematis St., West Palm Beach
For information: Call 253-2600 or visit workshop.org or fotofusion.org
Rachel Brown will give a free talk about the exhibition 4-6 p.m. Wednesday at the photo center.