Medium Format: A Conversation with Clarissa Bonet

Where does your interest in the street come from?

I became interested in the street as a site of investigation when I moved to Chicago a little over ten years ago. Prior to the move, I lived in Florida and was accustomed to experiencing places by car, often at speed. In general, the environment I grew up in was not built to accommodate the pedestrian. There was a lack of public transportation and sidewalks in many neighbourhoods. When sidewalks were an option, pedestrians often had to cross dangerous intersections or cover large distances to get to any worthwhile place. It was an environment better suited for the car than the pedestrian; it discouraged walking as a viable means of transportation. Once I moved to Chicago, all that changed. Walking and public transit became my main mode of transportation and I started to see and experience space differently. I was engaging and building an image of place unlike any I had experienced before. Life was slower and richer and I was fascinated by the profound impact of this small change. Shortly after relocating to Chicago, I started using my camera as a means of understanding this newfound landscape and my place in it. 

You refer to your street work as “highly controlled performance.” Could you please expand on that? 

I engage with the photographic medium in a directorial mode of image making. Rather than going out into the world, hoping to cross paths with an interesting photographic subject, I set up a scene and direct the image I want to make. The images are influenced by ideas and experiences rather than spontaneity. At first glance, the images from my City Space series appear to be candid street photographs, but they are in fact staged performances orchestrated for my camera. Going into a shoot, I have a pretty good idea of what I want the image to look like, although I am open to the unexpected. Sometimes those surprises make for a more layered image than the one I was expecting to make. 

Scouting locations and pre-photographing ideas with your phone is an important part of your creation. What are you looking for in terms of location?

It really spans the gamut. Sometimes, I have a clear concept for an image and I look for the right location to complement it, which may take many weeks to track down. At other times, I just wander the streets, completely open to what unfolds before me. It could be the way the light hits a building, the strangeness of a physical place or an interaction with a fellow pedestrian. Although I’m more of a directorial photographer, I wander the street much like a street photographer, looking, observing and being open to what crosses my path. I get many ideas for images this way. While on these walks I take snapshots with my iPhone – a mode of note taking in addition to writing in a traditional sketchbook. During these wanderings, I prefer using the iPhone for my snapshots because it records the time and location I took the image, which sometimes plays a factor in the making of my final image. For instance, if I find a location where I’m exceptionally drawn to the light, I can refer to the scouting image and then time the shoot appropriately to get the same or similar lighting. 

How do you choose the right model to complement your vision and the location?

The figures in my images are a mix of actors, models, friends and family. Sometimes I have an idea for an image and I know someone who would be a good fit. At other times I put out a call and cast the image that way. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I am looking for when choosing the figures because each image is different, but if I had to distill it down, I would say I cast the shoots based on a mix of conceptual and environmental factors. 

Strong shadows play an important role in your visuals, adding a sense of mystery and beauty but also some tension. Is it any way related to your personality and feelings?

I’m an introvert and I think that comes across in my work. It can be seen and felt in the stillness and quietude of my imagery. But in reference to the shadows, I like to think of light and shadows as tools and strategies I employ to conceal and transform the ordinary city street into a more emotional or psychological space. 

Your imagery strikes with thoughtful, yet original compositions. How do you approach seeing and arranging elements within the frame?

Thank you. My working process is observational and experimental. I often explore picture-making problems outside the constraints of my established projects. I’m curious as to what an image would look like if I did X, Y or Z. Not all the images are successful but I have learned a lot from my failures and have established my aesthetic from what works. This is likely how I developed my compositional strategies. 

You emphasize feelings and memories of the locations you have visited when recreating the imagery. Could you please describe this highly personal part of image making? 

The locations I shoot are often disconnected from the experience or observation that inspired the images because of picture-making challenges. Just because something happened in a certain location or time doesn’t mean it’s going to make the best image visually or communicate to the viewer effectively. So, I use my emotional connection to place, experiences and observations as source material for my work. This is why I work in a more directorial mode of making, which works better for what I aim to communicate. 

What is the most difficult technical part of your process?

Perhaps timing. Most of my images are shot in natural light, which can be unpredictable. My favourite time to shoot is midday, when the sun is high in the sky and the forecast calls for clear skies. Before each shoot I scout the location several times to observe the light and pinpoint the ideal lighting scenario for the image I want to make; however, weather is unpredictable and so there are only so many remedies and workarounds I can plan into a shoot. In part, luck is a factor. And when the weather decides not to cooperate, we reschedule, which has happened many times. 

You openly ask the viewer to “reference their own experience and be mindful of the way in which they see and navigate space” or in other words to be party to your creative process. It is a bold and interesting approach.

One thing I find enriching about living in a city is the freedom to traverse space by foot. Other modes of transportation move us so quickly that we easily miss nuances: the buildings, people, and interactions that make up the fabric of the city. With my work, I aim to show how these small but rich everyday experiences are all around us. We are richer for paying attention to what is unfolding. 

What do you think is the largest pitfall in today’s street photography? What would you advise a new photographer who is interested in street photography but would like to take the genre in a new direction? Where is the best place to start?

I’m fascinated by the street as a site of investigation and I make work on the city's streets but I don’t engage with the genre in the traditional sense so I don’t consider myself a street photographer. Nevertheless, here are my thoughts. Interested parties might want to consider what draws them to making images on the street and then figure out an approach that may be slightly outside the traditional framework while still aligning with their interests. How could you build upon what has been done before so that your approach or images are slightly unexpected? This would be new territory worth exploring. 

It is unusual for street-related photography to shoot with medium format. Why did you decide to work with medium format?

Yes, it is a bit unusual. I decided to work with a medium format system because of the image quality it provided. When I started making my City Space series, I was looking for a system that would be compact but deliver high-quality images that I could scale large when printed. When I first started making this my work, I was shooting with a Mamiya 7 II, then upgraded to the Hasselblad X1D. When making the switch from medium format film to digital medium format, I looked for a camera that was similar in size to my Mamiya 7 II and found the Hasselblad X1D, which ended up being the perfect fit for me and the work I make.

What is your favourite lens for your type of work?

My go-to lens for the Hasselblad X1D and 907X 50C is the 90mm. I tend to favour longer lenses for the images I make on the street because of environmental constraints such as shooting from an elevated plaza or from across the street. I often need the extra focal length to cover the physical distance between myself and my subject. When shooting with primes, you are forced to get closer rather than zoom in. This can present challenges like needing to stand in unsafe or physically impossible locations to get the shot, so I often bring the long lens as a workaround. 

Is there one photographer whose work you admire and would like the photographic world to pay attention to?

I’ve recently discovered the work of Felicity Hammond. We have intersecting interests and I am fascinated by her approach to the medium. I ordered her book, Property, which came in the mail a few days ago. I am looking forward to spending more time with it – and with her work. 

All images © Clarissa Bonet / Images courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago.