Clarissa Bonet is an artist based in Chicago whose work explores issues of the urban space in both a physical and psychological context. She holds an MFA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago, a BS in Photography from the University of Central Florida, and an AS in Photography from Daytona State College. Bonet’s work has been exhibited at the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, Aperture Foundation, Magenta Foundation, and Catherine Edelman Gallery.
Her work has been published in The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, CNN Photo, Chicago Magazine, Harpers Bizarre, Juxtapoz, Aint-Bad, The Eye of Photography, Photo District News, and many other publications both nationally and internationally. Bonet’s photographs are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Southeast Museum of Photography, Haggerty Museum of Art, University Club Chicago, and the JPMorgan Chase Art Collection.
SL.2018.0321 Chicago, 2018
SL.2014.1030 Chicago, 2014
SL.2017.1019 Chicago, 2017
In the stark light of day, buildings appear as strong, solid structures, and our attention is drawn to their dazzling facades. Yet as the sun begins to fade, the city transforms. The once-impenetrable buildings become transparent; a flick of a switch begins to reveal their contents and gives us small glimpses of who and what reside inside.
Stray Light is an ongoing photographic project that images 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, 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.
To make work for Stray Light I gather data; photographic images of windows in the form of “stray light”—light that emanates from the thousands of windows that dot the night sky. I collect this stray light by photographing from a variety of vantage points: rooftops, balconies, elevated streets, office windows, parking garages, and occasionally flat ground. After amassing a large amount of data, I pull from this archive, manipulating/collage together images to recreate the beauty & awe that the landscape evokes. This method of construction speaks to my interest in photography’s limitations to translate the physical and psychological experience of place. By constructing my work, I am able to create an image that better speaks to the experience of the modern urban landscape, one that evokes much of what the natural night sky might evoke: the presence of beauty and the experience of wonder and awe.
Hubble telescope images provide inspiration—of scale, density, depth, color—as I collage the work together. Always, humans have been intrigued by the heavens; now, the view is broken in the modern city of light pollution. In its stead, we have the city itself as our cosmos. Thousands of city lights dot the night sky like stars…while simultaneously allowing us a glimpse of the world inside. The collages that I create are representations of celestial light that we have created on earth.
SL.2016.0121 NYC, 2016
SL.2015.0608 Chicago, 2015
Hi Clarissa, I hope you are doing well! I am not sure when I was first introduced to your work, probably through Instagram, or maybe it was on Aint-Bad. But I remember very clearly the first time I saw your work printed and hanging on a wall: It was at the opening of your show at the Catherine Edelman Gallery in 2016. At that point I really understood how important the idea of scale is to your work. There is an idea in contemporary photography about the tableau – large-scale photographs intended to be hung on walls and viewed as paintings – and how this absorbs a viewers attention. Jeff Wall’s “Destroyed Room” is often what critics point to when discussing these ideas. I am curious if these are ideas you ruminate with you while making work and if they continue to affect your process?
Hi Porter, I’m happy to hear you had a chance to see my work in person at the Catherine Edelman Gallery.
With Stray Light my aim was to create a body of work that translated the experience of the contemporary nocturnal urban landscape. I’m interested in using the camera and the language of photography to create images that speak to the emotive connection of place – something that is often intangible. I see scale is a very important tool; it has the ability to create an immersive experience for the viewer. Early on, I knew that the Stray Light work needed to be large in order to communicate the immense and immersive experience of the city at night. This meant going through a process of experimentation with both how I photographed, and how I collaged images together to achieve the final aesthetic and scale.
SL.2016.0628 NYC, 2016
SL.2016.0214 NYC, 2016
SL.2015.0327 Chicago, 2015
There is a stark difference between cities in the South and the Midwest, specifically Chicago’s famous skyline. How did the move to Chicago change your perspective on the urban landscape? Were you excited to move from traveling in a car to becoming a pedestrian?
I can only speak to the cities in the south where I had an intimate experience of place over a long period of time. Prior to moving to Chicago I lived in Florida, where the cities I encountered were both sprawling and dominated by the automobile. The difference between the cities in Florida and Chicago for me was twofold. There was a density to Chicago that was both physical in structure and population. Chicago also accommodated and prioritized the pedestrian over the car, especially in the city’s center. The act of walking and taking mass transit as my primary mode of transportation was unfamiliar at first, but later became intimately linked to my practice—and continues to be. I found that on foot I have a deeper connection to the city, specifically the street, and my physiological and psychological experience of it.
Adding to that, how did attending Columbia College affect the way you imagine a cities “nocturnal urban landscape”? Being on the top floors of the 600 building looking out across the skyline, or walking back to the train through the seemingly empty city after a 10PM critique?
My time at Columbia as a graduate student did influence the way in which I experienced and thought about the landscape of the city because our campus was downtown, which meant I spent most of my time in the city’s center. I spent many late nights traversing the city because of Columbia’s location. It was during my last year of grad school that I started what would later become my Stray Light project, as seeing the lights at night overwhelmed me with sorrow for the loss of brilliance in the natural night sky, and yet I was also in awe of the man-made beauty of the city at night.
SL.2015.0126 Chicago, 2015
SL.2016.0603 NYC, 2016
Most photographers would consider themselves curious people and that is usually what gets them out the door. What initial curiosity drew you to point your camera towards a facade of windows? Is it a curiosity as to the lives and people that wander and inhabit the rooms inside the windows?
I’ve always been curious about my fellow city dweller, especially the anonymous individual and chance encounters so common in a city. I’m also intrigued by life, a process in perpetual transformation, as well as the inevitable shift in the experience of place that occurs over time. I see my Stray Light work as an accumulation of all of these interests. In the stark light of day, buildings appear a unified facade of physical beauty. As the sun goes down, the city is transformed. The facade is no longer what holds my attention. At night, I’m drawn to light emanating from windows. With a flick of a switch, life is revealed as we catch a glimpse of those who reside inside. Stray light that emanates from a window at night is a representation of a specific life, a life that I am connected to only briefly and by proximity. It’s purely a chance encounter from a distance, which I find fascinating—and reminiscent of the contemporary urban experience.
SL.2014.0510 Chicago, 2014
SL.2018.0222 Chicago, 2018
You mention space and stars and the cosmos when describing this body of work and when you live in the city you don’t really get to see the stars too often, instead you see a skyline. Can you talk towards how moving to a city gave you a different perspective on the “night sky”?
For years I made work in and about the city and rarely thought about the loss of the natural night sky. It wasn’t until I started this project that I was reminded how much was hidden and lost behind the artificial glow of the city. The stray light that fills the urban night sky produces a barrier between us and the cosmos above. Yet at the same time, this stray light creates a constellation here on earth. Instead of stars, window light fills the night sky, evoking a sense of wonder, mystery and awe – similar to my emotive response as I gaze upon a truly dark sky.
The images in Stray Light are carefully constructed from multiple photographs. As I collage images together, I use NASA imagery as inspiration for scale, density, depth, and color. The final images are large scale photographs that immerse the viewer and aim to evoke the same feeling one might get while looking at stars in a truly dark sky.
SL.2016.0215 NYC, 2016
SL.2016.0610 NYC, 2016
Besides the NASA images what other sources were you looking at when making and editing this work?
When I was making Stray Light, I looked at a variety of sources as inspiration. In addition to scientific imagery of the cosmos, I also looked to artists who came before me, both painters and photographers, specifically, Georgia O’keefe’s New York at night paintings, Vija Celmins’ meticulous renderings of star fields, and Edward Hopper – specifically his paintings that addressed the urban night. For photographers, I looked to Michael Wolf’s Transparent City series, and Ray Metzker’s composite images. There are a few more, but these are the first to come to mind and the most influential.
SL.2016. 0204 LA, 2016
SL.2018.0320 Chicago, 2018
To view more of Clarissa’s work please visit her website.
8.25″x10.75″, 256 pages,
Edition Size 1500
ISBN : 978-1-944005-18-4
Printed in the Netherlands
Introduction by : The Editors
Guest Curators and Interviews by :
Small Talk Collective