Clarissa Bonet Lives and works in Chicago. Her current work explores aspects of the urban space in both a physical and psychological context. She received her M.F.A. in photography from Columbia College Chicago in 2012, and her B.S. in Photography from the University of Central Florida.
Bonet’s work has been exhibited nationally, internationally, and resides in the collections of JPMorgan Chase Art Collection, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, The Museum of Contemporary Photography’s MPP collection, the Southeast Museum of Photography, and the Haggerty Museum of Art.
Her work has been featured on CNN Photos, The Wall Street Journal, The Eye of Photography, Photo District News, Juxtapoz Magazine, and many other notable online and print publications internationally.
Bonet has received recognition and support for her work from the Individual Artists Program Grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events and Albert P. Weisman Foundation. Recently, she was chosen as one of PDN’s 30 New and Emerging Photographers to Watch in 2015 and selected as a 2016 Flash Forward Emerging Photographer by the Magenta Foundation.
The urban space is striking – its tall and mysterious buildings, crowds of anonymous people, the endless sea of concrete. City Space is an ongoing photographic exploration of the urban environment and my perception of it. I am interested in the physical space of the city and its emotional and psychological impact on the body. These photographs reconstruct mundane events in the city that I have personally experienced or witnessed in public. Stark light, deep shadow, and muted color are visual strategies I explore to describe the city. I use the city as a stage and transform the physical space into a psychological one. The images I create do not represent a commonality of experience but instead provide a personal interpretation of the urban landscape.
Building facades melt into darkness, their architectural details vanish, leaving only glowing windows in a sea of pitch black, like stars in the night sky.
Stray Light is an ongoing photographic project aimed at imaging the nocturnal urban landscape. We have all but lost the night for our progress. In its place, we have formed a new cosmos, one of vanished surfaces and flecks of light. Carefully constructing each image from multiple photographs, I reform the urban landscape in my own vision – one that seeks to reconstruct the heavens in its absence above the cityscape. Light emanating from each window references a world unknown, evoking a sense of mystery and awe. We no longer look up to the night’s sky with awe. Instead, that is how we look out at the city.
Hey Clarissa, can you tell us how did your childhood ideas of urban environments shift when you moved from Tampa, FL to Chicago, IL? How did this sudden influx of populace impact your sense of identity?
Prior to moving to Chicago, I had few preconceived ideas of the urban environment. It wasn’t even a place I was particularly drawn to. Of course, I was interested in exploring the world outside of Florida, but when you’ve always lived a suburban life—and only in one state—you don’t know how drastically different life can be or how much the physical environment shapes day-to-day life in any given place.
Immediately prior to moving to Chicago, I lived in Daytona Beach Florida for five years. Daytona Beach is so much smaller and sleepier than Tampa. So as a young adult, I experienced a quiet, slow paced life at the beach and its lush tropical surroundings. This is in stark contrast to Chicago.
The urban environment immediately struck me as foreign, specifically the vast, tall structures that obstructed the horizon and the copious amounts of people constantly in flux around me. I was particularly fascinated by the anonymous individuals that occupied the urban space right alongside me. Our paths may cross spontaneously only to never cross again. I found that aspect of urban living to be particularly fascinating.
I was intrigued to learn that your photographs from City Space are staged photographs, which challenges our ideas of “candid” street photography. Can you discuss how your performative imagery stems from your personal experiences of urban life?
My work is rooted in the act of the pedestrian on the surface of the city—and in observing and contemplating the urban space. I borrow from the genre of street photography and very much from its practice: I wander the surface of the city for hours at a time observing and reacting to what I encounter. The main difference in what I do is I don’t make my final image during these wanderings. I observe, take notes in my sketchbook, and make sketches (snapshots) with my iPhone. I’m interested in capturing the body’s reaction to a monument or event, not a mere photographic description of it.
In addition, the street acts like a stage for everyday dramas to take place. I use light, shadow, color, or atmospheric effects to heighten this idea of the street as a stage. Armed with the inspiration I’ve gathered from my previous wonderings, I recreate these performances for my camera.
I am also curious about your use of a cell phone to seek out inspiration for this series. What did you find were the aesthetic and conceptual differences between the cell phone imagery and the photographs in City Space?
I wander the street for hours at a time and when I come across something that strikes me, I usually make a photograph of it with my iPhone. This could be a person’s gesture, a spill on the ground, the way the light is hitting a building, graffiti on a window, etc. These small observations serve as “sketches” for the final images. Sometimes the sketches I make with my iPhone don’t look anything like the final image. They tend to be a collage of sorts. I may use the gesture of an individual from one “sketch” and the location and lighting from another. Oftentimes the moments that I am drawn to and inspired by are in chaotic and distracting environments. There is so much going on that it is hard to distill down the one thing I am interested in.
Take Sweeping Traces for example. One chilly morning I was on one of my wanderings in the Loop and I distinctly remember that it was eerily quiet for a weekday morning. From a distance, I heard the sound of someone sweeping. As I looked around to hear where this sound was coming from, I saw a man across the street quietly sweeping up cigarette butts from outside a midsize office building. He was beautifully and quietly erasing the traces of the people who had just been there. I had been, and still am, interested in the marks people leave behind in space, the marks that speak to their presence—in their absence—like cigarette butts, graffiti, gum on the sidewalk, etc. I wanted to make an image about this one act and moment.
This man and his gesture stuck with me for some time. It might have been a year before I finally made the final image, Sweeping Traces. I needed to find a location that best suited this idea. If I were to have taken an image when I first saw this man it wouldn’t have had the same impact. There were so many distracting visual elements and it would have been hard for a viewer at that distance and camera angle to decipher what he was doing. In essence, the image would have fallen short of the idea. By recreating and constructing my imagery, I can be exactingly selective as to what I allow into the frame for the viewer to consider. So I choose the location, lighting, props, etc., to best speak to a singular idea. This way I can push the viewer to consider only what I want them to consider, and get them closer to my intention behind the image.
Your debut solo exhibition at Catherine Edelman Gallery features two series, City Space and Stray Light. How do you feel these bodies of work engage with one another collaboratively and individually?
As I’ve always been fascinated by the physical environment and the impact it has on the body, well both projects speak to this idea in slightly different ways. City Space speaks to the horizontal daytime experience of the surface of the city and Stray Light speaks to the nocturnal urban landscape.
By day the built environment is hard, rigid, and full of concrete and asphalt. The anonymous individuals that populate City Space roam the surface of the city as pedestrians. The buildings appear as a unified front, strong and almost fortress-like. As a pedestrian, these buildings are generally off limits to anyone who doesn’t work or live in these structures, leaving me to wonder what happens inside. Light is used as a device to create a stage speaking to the dramas of everyday life.
As the sun falls there is a shift that happens in the urban space. These tall structures that by day were an impenetrable fortress now become somewhat transparent – by a flip of a switch. Light emanating from these windows hints at the life lived inside. The facades of these tall structures melt away. They are no longer what grabs one’s attention, but rather it’s the light that strays from the windows that dot the night sky. Light again creates a stage for the mundane and everyday experience of place.
Your body of work, Stray Light, compares the light illuminating from buildings to the cosmos: “We no longer look up to the night’s sky with awe. Instead, that is how we look out at the city.” How do you think the overpowering presence of urban life challenges our perceptions of nature?
I think it’s easy to forget what we are missing when it is absent from our present. Before starting on this project I rarely thought about the absence of the stars above. I was too consumed by what was present in this beautiful and mesmerizing built environment. Last year I took a trip out west for a month, traveling in our Volkswagen camper van. It was the first time I experienced the middle of nowhere, often times with no cell reception. It was a stark contrast to urban living and it reminded me of the power of nature and the fragility of humanity, which I think is often forgotten when surrounded by modern comforts.
As a fine art photographer exhibiting in a major commercial gallery, how did the process of editing the work play out differently than editing for a book, website, or portfolio review?
I can’t speak to book form because I have yet to work with either body of work in that way. I can say the experience editing for the show was definitely different than editing for a portfolio review or website, where you want to show the project in its entirety. Since we were showing two bodies of work and wall space is limited, we had to edit both projects down quite a bit. We decided to focus on the newest work in both projects while choosing images that were cohesive and showed depth for both bodies of work.
Are these bodies of work ongoing? What other projects do you have on the horizon?
Yes, both bodies of work are ongoing; I tend to work on projects for long periods of time. As of now there’s no end in sight for City Space, as my experience and perception of the city shifts and changes over time, and so do my interests. Eventually, the work would make an interesting book and these shifts can be emphasized in the book form. I am also actively photographing for my Stray Light project as well. I would like to make a few more images before considering that project complete.
In addition to these two projects, I do have a third I’ve been working on, although I’m not really ready to reveal it yet; I’m still working through some ideas. My process is slow, and I like to live with my imagery for a long time before showing it. But I am really excited about this new project—and that’s all I want to say for now.
© Clarissa Bonet / Images courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago