Emma Brown wants to help you create your life resume

Andy Downing
An image from Emma Brown's "Red Thread" exhibit

Emma Brown is currently experiencing a situation that could pass for a philosophical thought experiment, the art world equivalent of asking, “If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?” 

The photographer and artist installed her new exhibit, “Red Thread,” at 934 Gallery as “stay at home” orders landed, and, save for a digital opening, the work has remained largely untouched and unviewed within the Milo-Grogan space.

“It is kind of strange to imagine all of the works just hanging in there quietly,” Brown said recently by phone (the exhibit comes down this weekend). “It was difficult, in a certain sense, but one of the things that was interesting about my exhibit going up basically as the ‘stay at home’ order was being implemented was that it became a fully digital exhibition, and more people were able to see it and experience it [online] than would have been able to attend, so that was a silver lining.”

The ability to suss out the positives from a difficult situation is certainly a skill, though it’s one that might be difficult to quantify on a resume, which is part of the drive behind “Red Thread,” an exhibit that pairs photographs of Brown’s friends and acquaintances with various invented “life documents” designed to better reflect the individual than the government-issued certificates and ID cards that currently fill that role.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more frustrated with the way we present ourselves and the typical identity documents— your ID, your birth certificate, all of these forms of paper … that you need to move around in society,” Brown said. “And I fully understand why they’re important, but they’re a very flat representation of your actual identity and the things that make you who you are as a person.”

For “Red Thread,” Brown generally selected subjects with whom she was already intimately familiar. For those few acquaintances she knew more in passing, she conducted interviews to better learn about their interests and drives, some of which she drew out through answers to direct, one-word questions. In one conversation, for example, Brown asked the friend of a friend if there was a single word that she valued. Without hesitation, the woman, a bartender, answered, “Connection.”

“Which was perfect, actually, because that was a huge theme of the exhibition as a whole,” said Brown, who will host a free artist workshop via Zoom on Saturday, May 16, during which she’ll instruct participants on creating their own “life resume” (click here to RSVP, as spots are limited).

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Brown said that she has long been curious about other people, and her desire to “step into another’s shoes,” as she put it, is part of what inspired her to pursue photojournalism and art.

“I’ve always enjoyed people watching, and wondering what people's lives are like,” Brown said. “As I’ve been getting older, a lot of my artistic work has been about trying to collaborate with people in order to see their perspective on things.”

With these interests largely forced on pause during the pandemic, Brown has spent more time looking inward, of late, though she isn’t sure quite how it will affect any work to come.

“I don’t think I have any conclusion about that just yet,” she said. “But it certainly has been a quiet time, and a time of reflection for a lot of people. It is interesting to end up having this workshop, where you’re thinking about yourself and the qualities that you like about yourself, at a point when there is a lot of time for self-reflection. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the future, but because of that there’s also a lot of time to reflect on the past and who you are as a person.”