In 1880, inventor Thomas Edison strung up lights outside of his laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J. Though it would be decades before Americans adopted the bulbs for popular use, Edison’s Christmastime decor marked the first strand of electrical lights to illuminate the dark holiday nights.
Seeped in nostalgia (and sometimes trending toward extravagance), Christmas light displays have become an artistic medium of their own. Centering the craft and artists behind the glowing exhibitions, photographer Danelle Manthey documents the folk art qualities of the arrangements in her new book “American Christmas.” Lined with images of homes decked in holiday lights, the table topper captures the stringed, hoisted and draped displays, with the artists behind the works appearing in the pages as both subjects and storytellers.
Manthey photographed the featured homes over the course of a decade, during which she scoped out creations around the United States. The book presents a selection of these images, cast alongside interviews with the homeowners. The narratives put into perspective the time, labor and family histories that go into the displays, adding a layer of intimacy to an art form that is often enjoyed from a distance.
We corresponded with Manthey about her book, the evolution of the project and the community element at the center of the displays.
What drew you to photograph Christmas lights?
When I was growing up in Sioux Falls, S.D., my family would pile into the car at Christmastime and drive around our town looking at houses covered in lights. Every year, the local paper has a map showing where to go to see light displays. The streets have names like Candy Cane Lane, Church Lane and Penguin Lane, and all of the houses are decorated in the particular theme of that street. These are by and large modest displays compared to some of the “mega displays” out there, but that’s what I knew growing up.
One year when I was visiting my family as an adult, my sister and I were wedged in the back of my father’s car, and she suggested I photograph the lights. I responded that I’d be more interested in the people who decorate their homes than the decorations themselves. We drove on, and I didn’t think much more about it.
A couple years later, I was brainstorming project ideas when I remembered the Christmas lights. My dad and niece found a few houses for me, and in 2003, I took my first shots. I was not happy with how they turned out, so I dropped the project. But in 2005, I decided to go back to Sioux Falls and try again. This time, the shots were better, and I spent nearly a decade on the road during the holiday season photographing people with their lights.
You talk a little bit in the book about how your subjects have changed in scale over the years. What do you look for in selecting houses to photograph now vs. when you first started the project?
When I first started out, I was pretty open minded to photographing any house that had an interesting aesthetic. Something that popped from the scene — like a helicopter with Santa in it or an amazing spread of white lights over a huge lawn.
As the series developed, I realized there needed to be a strong relationship between the subject and the lights. Additionally, I would ask myself, “How can I offset the subject from the display to make a nice composition? Have I photographed a house that had a similar vibe to the one I was considering?”
There are many houses that I photographed in the series that didn’t make it into the book because, in the end, the composition didn’t seem right. I really wanted all of the final images to have something special on their own, whether it be the way the person was posed or how the decorations were laid out.
How do you find the houses you capture? Do you coordinate a lot with the homeowners before photographing?
The first year, I wrote up an introductory note about who I was and that I would like to photograph them with their lights. My dad and niece went around to houses they thought looked good and stuck the note in people’s doors and mailboxes. Some of those people contacted me, and I scheduled appointments to take their photos.
In following years, I would either drive around and look for displays that I liked, then knock on their doors, explain that I liked their lights and wanted to take their photo. Then we’d schedule a time to do so.
However, once I started planning trips to new geographical areas, I would go down crazy Google rabbit holes to figure out who had the best displays in a particular area. I would try to email or call people in advance to tell them about the project and set up a time to shoot. I also would give myself additional time in my schedule when traveling in case I found a house I really liked. Some communities are big, like in Texas, and I was able to get referrals from other decorators as to some leads on houses to talk to.
Shooting each house: I like to get there early so I can think about the best angles and where I can place the subject(s). I don’t dictate what they wear unless they tell me that they normally dress up (like Santa or a snowman). In those cases, I ask them to dress as they normally do to decorate.
This whole project was shot on film, so I [would] set up my light and do some test Polaroid and then just start shooting — trying different poses and places within the display to photograph them.
How has working on film changed your approach to capturing the scenes?
I think, when you work on film, you need to be a bit more intentional with your approach. You don’t know exactly what you’re going to get, so really thinking about setting up the scene takes a bit of time. You can’t just take a couple of frames, check them out and then decide if it’s good or not. You have to know the light, know how long the exposure is going to take to get the Christmas lights to bleed in.
I take my time with each person, trying out different poses in areas around their display. I rely on my light meter to make sure the ratio of the strobe and the Christmas lights is correct. After shooting the lights for years, there gets to be a bit of a formula that I can calculate to know my exposures to get everything to come out correctly.
Your photographs integrate the decorator into the scene, often casting them alone or in a small group in a way that contrasts to the community gathering aspect painted by the text. Could you share a little bit about both the solitary and community qualities of the art form?
Each person, family or small group works on their display throughout the year in a bit of a bubble to perfect the coming year’s display. It’s a bit like any artist that is preparing for an exhibition. They need to have the time to work out how it will turn out, what changes there may be and fix things that they might not have been pleased with in the past.
Perhaps from there, they engage online with other decorators to get inspiration or to ask about how someone else achieved a particular aspect in their display. There is a huge online community in which people can connect to one another to exchange stories, show off, problem solve, etc.
Then comes the time to actually decorate. This is done in many ways, depending on the decorator. Again, it can be a solitary process, something done with family or, as I’ve seen, the community comes together to make the decorations happen.
Once the display is up, people interact with the community in different ways. Depending on what aspects are in the decorations — some people give out candy; in some [displays], you can have your photo taken with Santa; sometimes you can tune your car to a specific radio station so you can watch the lights dance to music. Often people sit outside and chat with neighbors.
In one community, the husband dressed as Santa and gave gifts to the local children. I’ve seen people hosting drives for their favorite charity. Each situation is unique according to the aspect that drives them to decorate in the first place.
How has your relationship to Christmas lights changed personally?
Personally, I’m not a huge Christmas fan. It’s never been my favorite holiday, as it’s filled with so much expectation for something material. What this project has brought me is a different understanding of the holiday: to give for the pleasure of others. That’s what the holiday should really be about and is to so many people. Certainly it is to the people that I’ve met and have graciously let me into their homes.
What has been the biggest “unicorn” or unique aspect of a display that you have found?
That’s a tough question. Is it Petey from Hammond, Ind., whose display, “A Christmas Story,” encompasses three houses in a row and pays tribute to the popular movie with the leg lamp in the window?
Is it Gil Gerard from Louisiana who hand made a trolley car and paddle boat to represent his home state?
Is it Deacon Dave who has the Dove Chapel in the back of his property?
Is it Scott Weber from LaSalle, Ill., who inspired awe in my subjects after I photographed him because he invented a spinning Christmas tree?
I don’t know if I can answer that there is one unicorn that stood out from the rest.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Top Image: Bill Vanderslice. Port Charlotte, Fla. Photo courtesy of Danelle Manthey.