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.

Angie McMonigal | Chicago

Hi Angie, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself? When did you first decide you wanted to become a photographer?
I currently live in Chicago and have for most of the last 15 years. Originally I’m from a small town in central Wisconsin but have always been drawn to big cities. I moved here shortly after college and shortly after that began photographing as a hobby. Things gradually took off from there.

I can’t say I ever fully consciously made the decision to become a photographer. I’ve always done it for the fun of it, because it’s something that I enjoy and am excited about. Over time opportunities have come up and I’ve pursued those. Not to say I don’t put a lot of work or thought into my photography but it’s been a very gradual evolution from hobby to profession.

What drew you to architecture as a subject of your work?
This has always been a tough question for me to answer. I don’t have the obvious connection to architecture that a lot of architectural photographers do with previous careers as architects or engineers. I think it simply stems from my love of big cities, the awe I feel wandering around the skyscrapers and the energy of a big city. Growing up in such a small town, the stark contrast has always been intriguing. I also love that there’s as much a science to architecture as there is an art form. My professional background before photography was scientifically based. So, I guess, I feel there’s some relatability to that dichotomy, the need to explore both sides of my personality.

Do you have a favorite architect? 
I have a few…. I adore the work of Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava. I recently discovered David Adjaye’s work, which is also inspiring. There are two Chicago architects I particularly admire as well, Jeanne Gang and Juan Moreno.

I love the sculptural form of so many of their designs. Their interesting use of lines and curves, their emphasis on taking the building or structures environment into consideration with each design

How did you cultivate your sense of composition?
I’ve been asked about this a lot lately and it’s another difficult question for me to put into words. It’s not really anything I’ve necessarily sought out to do. I haven’t studied books on composition and don’t consciously think about all the rules of composition when I’m out shooting….the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, leading lines, etc. I think it’s been more a matter of what feels right when framing a shot, trying different things and seeing what looks and feels right for each subject. Of course, much of what feels right ends up falling within those tried and true rules but it’s also about knowing when to break the rules. For example, I love symmetry and centering your subject has long been one of those compositional killers. But with the right subject it just works.

How do you prepare yourself before shooting a building?
On a typical day of shooting I tend to choose one building to focus on. This allows me to spend more time exploring the building and studying its intricacies. I’ll generally research whom the architect was and if there was anything that inspired the design. I do a Google image search to see what vantage points others have used and what seems to be a common approach to the building. While this might influence my initial approach and I may recreate something similar to what others have already done, I also use this as a means to push myself to see things in a new way and move beyond what seems to be the more obvious shot.

I don’t pre-plan my shots; I know many photographers that will sketch the shot they intend to make. I prefer to leave the specifics open to interpretation once on location, to walk around the building, study it, get a feel for how the light is interacting with the structure and go from there. So much of how I shoot depends on my mood, the weather and light. Regardless of whatever planning I do I can't always account for everything. I think it's good to leave some level of openness to the moment.

What are some of your methods to stay motivated, focused and expressive?
I find the best way to stay motivated is to just make the time to go out and shoot. Even if I may not be in the mood or feeling particularly inspired, just forcing myself to get out almost always gets me excited to be photographing. Studying other photographer’s work I find inspiring also helps. However, sometimes I just need a break to recharge, to read something unrelated to photography, go to concerts, just live life. We all need those breaks to connect with those in our lives and to experience things outside of photography. These experiences shape how we see the world and can bring about a renewed motivation.

What was one of your biggest lessons learned since starting your practice?
To tune out the opinions of others and to shoot what and how I want, to edit the way that works for me. A few years ago I think there was a lot of insecurity about whether my images were any good and I was taking criticism/advice far too personally. Not to mention all these conflicting opinions from one person to the next; I felt nothing but confused and it showed in my work. I decided to stop asking for input and to just shoot what was fun for me. If it resonated with people, fantastic; but first and foremost I needed to be creating something that resonated with me. 

At the end of the day only I know what my intentions are when creating each image, only I know what I want to say through my work and what I want the final result to look and feel like. 

There’s nothing wrong with seeking constructive criticism from those you trust, whose work you admire and respect, but, ultimately, you need to decide if it makes sense with your final vision.

What advice would you give to photographers wanting to work in the world of architecture?There are numerous ways to approach photographing architecture, or any subject for that matter. Figure out what you most enjoy about photographing architecture. Do it for yourself, for the fun of it, develop your unique way of seeing your subjects and become very good at it. Having some level of consistency is key but don’t forget to play and experiment and try new things. From genres to techniques, you never know how it might influence future work.

What do you think - why are not many female architectural photographers around?
I’d say there aren’t a lot of female photographers in any genre compared to men. I don’t really know why. Maybe because so many photographers interested in architectural photography have a background as an architect or engineer, which are both heavily dominated male fields.

You have shot a lot of buildings over the past years - do you have a favorite?
Two of my favorites are the Frank Gehry designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angles and the Santiago Calatrava designed Milwaukee Art Museum. There are endless photographic possibilities with both.