Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Conversation with Christina Seely

Metropolis 36° 10’ N 115° 8’ W and Metropolis (Nagoya), from Lux ©Christina Seely

Every weeknight I take the same train back home to Brooklyn and every night I look out the train windows to see the New York cityscape from the Manhattan bridge. The illuminated city amongst the darkness is seemingly always regarded as beauty. This week I am proud to present Christina Seely and her photographic series entitled Lux. Christina is an artist that focuses on the illumination of urban landscapes and makes you wonder how this brilliant amount of light has its impact on the global environment.

NP: Tell us a little about yourself.

CS: I currently live in the Bay Area where I work as an artist, teach photography at California College of the Arts, and am a member of a design collective called Civil Twilight. (That beginning is a little dry so I’ll add that I keep bees in my backyard and I love Chinese coconut buns.)

My upbringing was a back and forth between urban and natural worlds and while we always came home to the same place, my family did a lot of traveling. I was born and raised in Berkeley and spent part of every summer along the Shores of Lake Superior in Northern Minnesota. These things have probably had the most influence on my evolution as a person/artist.

My affection for the Midwest led me to attend Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota where I got my undergraduate degree. I then slowly migrated south in stages along the East Coast, starting in Boston where I got a Post Bacc at the SMFA, then to Providence, RI, where I got my MFA in Photography at RISD, and eventually I ended up in New York City for a number of years before my recent return to California.

I am an incredibly curious person, started off and (thankfully shifted away from) studying philosophy, and can’t get enough of ideas about how we see the world, so it is no wonder I became an artist/photographer. I make photographs that deal with our increasingly delicate relationship to the resources and rhythms of nature and I tend to make distinct bodies of work that center around one idea. While I work pretty exclusively in photography I tend to consider myself an artist first, a photographer second.

Metropolis 40° 25’ N 3° 41’ W and Metropolis 40° 47’ N 73° 58’ W, from Lux ©Christina Seely

NP: How did you discover photography?

CS: Travel was very important to my family and my earliest photographs were taken on trips to Minnesota and Washington DC to visit my grandparents with one of those cameras that had film that looked like a Viewmaster disk. When I was 10 my family took a trip to Europe and I still have these incredibly vivid visual memories associated with that experience and the photographs I took. In hindsight I’d say that trip sparked my intense love of both travel and it’s relationship to learning and photographing.

During my sophomore year at Carleton I went on an off campus Studio Art and Biology program to New Zealand and Australia. We studied both art and science with a focus on Maori and Aboriginal cultures and their incredibly integrated relationships to the land. This trip no doubt distilled my broader interests and planted the seed for what would become the prominent and perpetual themes in my work; travel, science, and how we as humans relate to the land/nature. Photography followed – upon my return to Carleton I worked as a very tentative printmaker until taking a photography class my junior year.

Post college with very few photographic skills I took off for Boston to see if I really wanted to become an artist. The Museum School was the best place I could have gone. It was a seriously golden time. On my own terms, I learned everything I could about photography, took interdisciplinary graduate level classes, and met some of the most influential people in my life as an artist, including one of my great mentors, Frank Gohlke, and my close friend, Neeta Madahar. At RISD I met more great people, I figured out what kind of artist I wanted to be, and that I really loved and wanted to be a teacher.

Metropolis 35° 00’ N 135° 45’ E and Metropolis 51° 29’ N 0° 0’ W, from Lux ©Christina Seely

NP: Where do you find inspiration?

CS: The land: Basically every type of landscape I find inspiring – Lake Superior exponentially so. The woods are gorgeous and the lake, as the largest body of fresh water in the world, is it’s own incredibly moody inland ocean. It is no doubt my favorite place on earth and I get back there whenever I can.

Nature stuff: Bees, I keep bees with a friend in my backyard. They are fascinating super organisms that don’t need us at all and that honey they make (and kindly let us steal) is so good. David Attenborough’s “Life In the Undergrowth” series is insane. And beavers. How can you not be fired up by an architectural genius in the form of a tubby mammal that can cut down trees with it’s teeth and build structures up to 10 ft high and 100 ft across, that completely morph the landscape, and are maintained by subsequent generations for up to 100 years? The list goes on…

Travel: I’ve traveled all over the world and go on trips at least 4 times a year. I learn and take in the most and just generally need it to gain perspective now and then. As a teacher I’ve been lucky to be able to build it in as a rhythm in my life. I’ll keep at it forever.

Books: A lot of my ideas come out of what I read. I usually inch through about 5 at a time in random rotation. Things read that have inspired work: Bill McKibben’s "The Age of Missing Information”, the NY Times Magazine, Jeanette Winterson’s “Lighthouse Keeping”, Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, “Longitude” by Dava Sobel, River of Shadows (about Muybridge, the transcontinental railroad and photography) by Rebecca Solnit, essays by Barry Lopez…

Humans: So many. To start fellow artists/makers/, mentors, friends, family (particularly my brother who is a documentary film maker and my 6 year old cousin who I suspect can name any bird in the Northwest if prompted). I have a lot of interesting, amazing and incredibly talented people in my life and am very lucky for it.

Big thinkers inside and out of art: James Turrell, Tim Hawkinson, Richard Prince, Bill Viola, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Christian Marclay, Paul Chan, Richard Misrach, David Hockney, Edward Muybridge, Walead Beshty, Erika Blumenfeld, CLUI, William Kentridge, Edison, Elizabeth I, NASA, Helen Keller, Buckminster Fuller, Ford, Frank Gehry…

Music: I could not live or work without it. My range of interest in it is very broad (to start I grew up listening to hiphop, bluegrass, classical + opera)

NASA of the world at night

NP: How did your project "Lux" come about?

CS: At a certain point I became somewhat obsessed with the NASA map of the world at night and I kept coming back to it over and over again. It is so beautiful while also being somewhat unsettling. I could not help but think about what the light on the map represents about us and how it both dominates the map in it’s intense contrast to the darkness of the land and water, and how it looks a lot like bacteria spreading. I also liked the relationship between light as information on the map and light as information building on a negative. 3 regions on the map are noticeably brighter than the rest and so I became curious about what this cumulative light represents. It’s not surprising these regions; the US, Western Europe and Japan, are the wealthiest and most powerful regions in the world (though that is now shifting a bit with the current state of the economy and China’s major boom) and they use something like 2/3 of the world’s resources and create around 45% of the world’s CO2. Though these stats lead to the conclusion that this light equals a negative impact on the planet, since it’s inception manmade light has also represented; ingenuity and progress, innovation, growth, prosperity, amusement, romance, optimism and promise – basically fundamentally positive and hopeful things. My real interest lies in this complexity.

The first city I photographed for Lux was London. Over a couple of nights I took about 4 shots total, one of which is currently included in the series. I was photographing from both within and from a bit further out of the city. The shot taken from more of a distance tied back into this idea of the city being a point on the map. After that I started taking more portrait-like shots for Lux that included in them a relationship to the land/terrain or some aspect of “the natural world”. I also very carefully avoided any iconic signifiers; no Eiffel Tower, no Empire State Building, etc., and chose to title the work by the city’s latitude and longitude so the viewer is inclined to refer to the NASA map key to figure out the identity of the city. This forces a longer look and suggests the unilateral impact of these cities on the global environment.

After London I went on to photograph US cities I had more access to and figured out my process a bit better. Because of reciprocity failure my exposure times are between 1-4 hours depending on my distance from the light. I usually shoot between 1-3 negatives per city. In 2005 I took off solo for Western Europe with my 4x5 Canham field camera, a few lenses, and the smallest/lightest tripod I could work with, and coordinated the travel and shooting of 11 cities. I had the help of many generous folk. A few months later I traveled to Japan with a friend to photograph the brightest 6 cities in Japan. This summer I road tripped around the US to check off 7 cities from the list and recently photographed Seattle and Portland. There will be 42 cities total all chosen based on light on the NASA map in the final series. I am looking for funding to shoot the remaining cities in the US and 5 in Europe. Eventually the series will be made into a book.

Metropolis 35° 41’ N 139° 46’ E and Metropolis 41° 54’ N 87° 39’ W, from Lux ©Christina Seely

NP: What's next?

CS: My main goals at the moment are to secure funding to photograph the rest of the cities for Lux by the end of the summer, find the right publisher to produce a book of the series, and find gallery representation in California and New York. I’m also starting to get ready for a few shows opening this Spring; a solo show at the Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle, another at Country Club gallery in Cincinnati, and a group show at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago called The Edge of Intent.

Supplementary, I am a member of Civil Twilight, a design collective, that was formed a few years ago with two close friends, Anton Willis and Kate Lydon, around Anton’s idea for Lunar Resonant Streetlights (streetlights that dim and brighten correlated with the moon). We won Metropolis Magazine’s Next Generation Competition in 2007 and have received a lot of interest in the project from all over the globe, which has been very exciting. We are in the midst of prototype development and plan to get the streetlights out into the world in the next year or so.

New work wise, I’ll soon be continuing to work on a project, The Tree Portraits, I started a few summers back taking studio portraits of trunks of trees with an 8x10 camera and I hope to get started on two other pending projects, one working with fog and another on bees, two things I have easy access too.

NP: Thank you very much, Christina!

To see more of Christina's work and learn more about her design collection please head to:


nina corvallo said...

beautiful work.

Rona Chang said...

I recently came across the Nasa map and thought it was interesting. Thank you Christina for allowing me take a second look and think about the issues further.