Two days back I featured a project ‘Absence of Sound’ of the photographer Danelle Manthey living and working in New York City. ‘Christmas USA’ is another of her impressive ongoing project still running for more than 10 years. I wanted to showcase some images from this project and waited for the right time… lo and behold, Christmas is here!
These images have been taken over the course of a decade. They capture people across the country with their Christmas lights.
Project Statement : When I was growing up, my family would load up the car and travel around our town to look at houses covered in lights during the Christmas season. Personally, I would have rather stayed home and opened presents, but that’s what we did every year.
In Sioux Falls, S.D., there’s a map that comes in the newspaper with all of the streets marked where you can see lights. The streets have names like Candy Cane Lane, Church Lane, and Penguin Lane, and all of the houses on that street are decorated in a particular theme.
Later on, as an adult, I saw these homes again and began to think about the people who did the decorating. I was curious what drove them to decorate every year and wanted to talk to them about it and photograph them. I began in 2003 in Sioux Falls with some modest homes and my Hasselblad camera. After the first year, I realized that I wanted to have a horizontal format, so I switched to the Mamiya RZ.
Each year, my project grew not only in geography (in total, I visited 12 states), but also in the way I approached the project. There is a large online community in the Christmas light world. They support each other through forums, websites, and blogs, and there are certain “stars” within this group. I photographed a man in Indiana, and when I mentioned his name to others, they were in awe since he had invented a specific kind of tree with lights that moved in a swirling motion around it.
Complete strangers from all over the country have sat patiently for me while I try to conjure up some magical photographic moment that not only captures their art but also a piece of them. I would generally spend at least an hour with everyone I photographed and was often invited into their homes to hang out and chat afterwards. It never ceased to amaze me that I was allowed into their homes to photograph them and their families when they had never met me before.
I’ve come to view the decorations as a form of American folk art that the creators are constantly evolving over time. These are regular people in their everyday lives and often don’t think of themselves as creative, yet they turn out these amazing pieces of site-specific, temporary, interactive art.
They often spend months or most of the year working on their displays, often fixing things that have broken and planning how to evolve the display the following year. I have seen a lot of creative storage solutions as well. One family I photographed moves into a trailer during the holidays because their display completely takes over the inside of their home.
Many of the decorators open their homes to strangers and have thousands of people traipsing in and out for several weeks. There are often social events held for the community on these properties. Many people have donation boxes and fundraising drives to help out their favorite charities.
This takes true passion and that’s what has kept me interested in photographing these people and taking down their stories year after year. My images and words are just a glimpse into their world, but my intention is to capture their spirit.
All photos © Danelle Manthey : Website