Clarissa Bonet | Chicago

Hello Clarissa, can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and when was the first time you became aware of photography?
Currently I live and work in Chicago and have been in the city since 2009. Prior to moving to Chicago for graduate school, I lived in Florida where I grew up. The first time I became aware of photography as a form of expression and art was when I was about 15 in my first photography class. Prior to that, I took so many photographs of my friends and family with those cheap disposable cameras from the drug store. It wasn’t until that first photography class, I became aware of the breadth of the medium, beyond vernacular photography.

Let’s talk about your City Space project. How did the idea come up for this project?
The project City Space stemmed from the shift in my environment from the tropical landscape of Florida to the urban space in 2009. If I hadn’t moved to Chicago, I don’t know that I would have ever made that work. I was never particularly interested in the urban space prior to my move; what sparked me had a lot to do with lack of exposure to the urban space in a large way. I was taken aback when I found myself in this strange new environment. I started making photographs to understand this place and my role within it.

Can you describe the process when you started with the City Space project?
When I first moved to Chicago I felt invisible. I had never lived among so many people and it was overwhelming—and a little terrifying. I distinctly remember thinking I could disappear and no one would ever notice…well no one but my husband. I thought about the hundreds of people I pass every day who live on my street, or the people on the train. A constant revolving door of strangers, whom I would see once and then possibly never again. So these ideas were foremost as I started making images for the project. Many of those early images are not in the project now, but the thread of relentless anonymity is still very much a part of it. I never fully show anyone’s face; everyone is portrayed as an anonymous stranger.

The images look like candid shots - but they are composed with people you hired. Why?
There is something lost in translation between a photograph of an event and what that even felt like in the moment. I am trying to image the latter. With my project City Space I am not trying to document the city but rather show the viewer how I perceive the urban space. I found I can best achieve that by staging the image and utilizing the tools of photography—like camera angle, depth of field, light and shadow—to reveal how I understand, experience, and see the urban space.

You studied Photography at Columbia College in Chicago and are represented by the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago. What advice would you give young photographers who want to be represented by a gallery?
Do your research and know what galleries your work would fit into. Don’t just accept the first offer of gallery representation if it’s not a perfect fit. I had my eye set on the Catherine Edelman Gallery as a student because of the type of work she showed. I felt as though I could fit in as one of her artists. A few years later I had an opportunity to show Catherine Edelman my work when I was in my last year of grad school, and from there she invited me to show her more work as it developed. I made sure I took her up on this opportunity and did just that, meeting with her every 6 to 9 months over the course of about 2 years. It’s also important to understand that gallery representation doesn’t happen overnight, and you have to be patient; it’s a process. Once you get your foot in the door be patient and follow up, but don’t be aggressive. Gallerists are very busy.

What is the biggest mistake you have made in your career as a photographer?
Not following up with people. Right out of grad school my work got a lot of attention and I didn’t understand what people meant when they said to keep them posted on what I was doing. I thought putting them on my email list or just updating them right then with what I was currently doing was what they meant. After my experience with Catherine Edelman I realized what they were saying. Now I try to stay better connected with people, and I reach out directly to curators and institutions.

What do you enjoy most about being a photographer?
Seeing the images come to fruition. My images exist first as ideas in my head, then as really terrible sketches in my sketchbook and/or as iPhone sketches. The whole process is time consuming and stressful because there are a lot of moving components, but during the shoot that all seems to melt away and I am focused on shooting. Once I get the image scanned and start editing, then that’s one of my favorite parts.

What and who inspires you? Is there a photographer who has influenced your work?
There are many photographers and painters who have influenced my work. Ray Metzker is probably the most influential, but there are so many others. Michael Wolf, Daniel Shea, Harry Callahan, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Mona Breede, Hannah Starkey, just to name a few photographers. As for painters who have strongly influenced by work, I would have to say George Tooker, Edward Hopper, Vija Celmins, and Georgia O’Keefe’s city paintings.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to share with our readers?
My project Stray Light debuted at the Catherine Edelman Gallery this past year, so it is relatively new. Stray Light is an ongoing photographic project aimed at imaging the nocturnal urban landscape, as 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 of night-lit buildings, I reform the urban landscape in my own vision—one that seeks to reconstruct the heavens in its absence above the cityscape.

In addition, I am working on a new project focusing on the structure and surface of the built environment that is not so much about its inhabitants, although they play a small role in it. I’m excited about the project and process, which is a little bit of a departure for me. But I am not ready to divulge too much about it yet as I’m still very much in the process of working things out.