photographing a doomed hollywood starlet in 'americana girl'

In her first photo book, photographer Rachel Brennecke (aka Bon Jane) captures the prismatic quality of female vulnerability.

Sep 19 2016, 3:50pm

"One of the movies that influenced me is The Black Dahlia," says Rachel Brennecke of the inspiration for her first book, Americana Girl. The images lure you into a fictional reality — one where women and girls are being cast as a 1950s Hollywood diner waitress in the starring role of an imaginary film which the photographer has no intention of creating. The project has resulted in the stunning culmination of eleven portraits. Each girl's gaze walks the line between hope and self-doubt. At the heart of the book is an exploration of female vulnerability — as an adult, as a child, as an object, as a sexual being. The portraits convey a delicate sadness referencing the classic myth of the Hollywood fallen angel.

A filmmaker, performance artist, and photographer, Brennecke studied art at The Rietveld Academie in The Netherlands before apprenticing under French fashion photographer Gilles Bensimon. She embraces intimacy in her work, exploring different parts of modern womanhood, from sensual, uninhibited and bold, to objectified, naïve, and vulnerable We recently spoke with Brennecke about the first photo she ever took and what "Americana" means to her.

When did you get your first camera?
I got my first point-and-shoot camera when I was 12. One of the first pictures I took - after I took pictures of my hamsters having sex - [was of] my younger sister, who at the time was five, in a little black tank top of mine. I pinned it in the back and put makeup on her, and I wrote on her chest in eyeliner: "for sale, 15 dollars." I took pictures of her posing, basically like a prostitute. It was very strange looking back, that I did that.

Americana Girl is your first photo book. How did you come up with the concept?
I knew I wanted to shoot women in my bedroom against a neutral colored wall, so I first started by inviting all these high school girls over. I shot all of them and one of them stuck; it was the first shot I took. I put them in wigs. I loved the way I was able to dress them up and turn them into different people, different characters. This one character emerged and then became the theme.

In terms of the star of this film, what were the qualities you looked for in her?
She definitely is lonely but desperate and trying to conform herself to be something, which I think all women can identify with because we are taught at a young age, "Oh, you have to be pretty," or "You have to be polite." So there's a quality of [that] that was amplified in her character. One of the movies that influenced me the most in line with what I'm doing now is The Black Dahlia. [Murder victim Elizabeth Short] was beautiful and talented but she got exploited. There are interviews of her in the film where she's just sitting there traumatized, and she's talking and they're running the camera and seeing what her character does. There's this incredible vulnerability mixed with putting on a show.

There's also a very cinematic quality to the visual narrative of this book.
When I think about this work, I think about film. I don't think about portraiture as much as I think about narrative and what's going to happen before and after, and where she's going. I love the idea of the tragic Hollywood actress, like a Marilyn Monroe - a fallen angel, somebody everyone falls in love with. She's filling up this abandoned childhood, and she's getting all this love and recognition and attention she's always wanted and then turns into this monster that she can't control.

And it seems you're capturing them in that moment before they go downwards. There's still a bit of hopefulness.
Exactly. Which is exactly why I keep referencing The Black Dahlia, but these scenes really made an impact on me because they showed a range of vulnerability and hopefulness and posing. You can also see the cracks starting to form, where she's starting to fall apart and realize she's being objectified, and she recognizes she's doing things she doesn't want to do.

What is an "Americana girl" to you?
She's very hopeful, she's interested in the American dream, she's coming from a family that's not particularly well-off or particularly connected, and she's going for something huge as an escape. She's extremely vulnerable but she's putting on an air of appearing perfect and strong. 


Text J.L. Sirisuk
Photographs courtesy Bon Jane