From the DS Archives: Christina Seely Interview

Each Sunday we reach deep into the DailyServing Archives to unearth an old feature that we think needs to see the light of day. This week we found an interview with San Francisco Bay Area artist Christina Seely. If you have a favorite feature that you think should be published again, simply email us at with you selection and include DS Archive in the subject line.

Originally published: April 23, 2009                                                                                                                                                        By Arden Sherman

Christina Seely’s interest in nature and the changing environment is seen through her vivid photographs. For an artist with a strong mind and an innovative way of translating her message, her photographs are remarkably reserved and still. Seely’s nighttime cityscapes are familiar and at the same time, evoke the sensation of jamais vu–where the commonplace becomes eerily unrecognizable–inviting the viewer into place of investigation. This year she will exhibit works from her ongoing landscape project, Lux, at Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle and at The Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. DailyServing’s Arden Sherman had a chance to sit down with the San Francisco-based photographer and discuss her series Lux, her thoughts on the expansion of eco-awareness in today’s world, and the potential of potential.

Arden Sherman: Hi Christina. Thank you for meeting me. Can you tell be about your teaching position at California College of the Arts? What do you teach, exactly?

Christina Seely: I teach undergraduate photography in Oakland, mostly to first years and sophomores. In the fall, I will teach an interdisciplinary class called Metro-Nature for upper level students, which will be fun.

AS: Do you work digitally?

CS: My work uses both analog and digital technology. I shoot analog negatives and have them drum scanned. Because of the size of the print (48×60 inches), I then have them printed digitally. Once I have a file from the scan I prep it in the digital darkroom on my computer like I would in the analog dark room before having the photographs printed as a Digital C-print at a lab. A digital C-print is the same process as an analog C-print. The paper is the same, the processing is the same, but the image is projected onto the page differently.

AS: Can you tell me about your latest series, Lux?

CS: The project is based on the NASA map of the world at night. I got somewhat obsessed with this map about four years ago. I like how beautiful and strange the map is and how the light on the map reflects our presence and indicates human impact and activity through our use of man made light. I noticed that there are three regions that are brighter on the map, the US, Western Europe, and Japan. I then did a lot of research about these regions, and became interested in what the idea of this “cumulative light” means. Not surprisingly, these three regions are the wealthiest and most powerful in the world and use something like two-thirds of the world’s resources and create about 45 percent of the world’s carbon-dioxide emissions. This map is from 2002. When I started this project, China was not part of the equation but on a current version of the map it would also be “blowing up”, exploding with light. Fundamentally the conclusion from this research is that this light equals impact on the planet.

Since the dawn of electricity, man-made light has also meant and still does mean many very positive things, like ingenuity, progress, growth, seduction, entertainment and romance, all of which are fundamentally positive. I am therefore really interested in the complexity of the beauty presented in this work.

AS: How are you visually translating these ideas in Lux?

CS: I began photographing the largest cities in these regions at night, literally using the visual information on the map to select the cities. What I focus on when I’m shooting is the intersection between each city and nature, or the land. I place myself in a position where I am back far enough to create a portrait of the city and can show it’s relationship to nature. In this work, I am only recording man-made light and I always photograph after civil twilight ends (which is the hour between when the sun goes down and when it’s completely dark). Because of something called reciprocity failure, (when the relationship between aperture and shutter speed falls apart with longer and extremely short exposures) my exposure times are usually between one to four hours long.

I always over-expose a bit to make sure I get the information I need for printing. But when I am making printing decisions, I take into account how the human eye works and how the brain perceives light. It takes about an hour for our eyes to adjust to dimmer light so our perception of light over long periods of time changes quite a bit. How I see light at the end of a shoot is completely different from how I see it at the beginning. In my decision making I do try to push the prints to cause a slightly unsettling feeling within the viewer. I believe this leads the viewer to further question what they are seeing.

seely_birmingham.jpgThis is Birmingham in England. In a gallery setting the photographs are titled by the latitude and longitude of each city with the intention that the viewer will refer back to the NASA map and reconnect to the broader issue. I mount a NASA map key and have available laminated keys with thumbnails of the work that include the cities’ proper names so that people can identify them. When I photograph, I almost always avoid the inclusion of well known landmarks and iconic buildings.

AS: Why?

CS: So the viewer doesn’t check out. We are so used to seeing photographs of city skylines at night. The mystery left without these indicators allows for a deeper reflection of what is being shown and encourages the action of going to the NASA map to find the city’s identity. This subsequently reconnects the viewer back to the bigger picture and ideas relating to global impact, global culture, global responsibility, etc.

This is Chicago.

seely_chicago.jpgAS: This is beautiful.

CS: It’s one of my favorites. It was taken from about fifteen miles across Lake Michigan in Indiana. The streaks in the upper right hand corner are star trails. It was selected as the show poster for The Edge of Intent at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago

AS: Have you completed this project?

CS: I have photographed about thirty of the cities so far and have about ten cities left. I used some of my own money to get the project going and have picked up a little funding along the way. Now, I am really looking to get it finished so my main focus for the last few months has been toward this end. As of now I’ve sold enough work to almost break even and things are starting to get going, so I am really hopeful. Eventually, it would be great to be able to pay the rent, bills and make a living off the work. That of course is the goal.

This is Paris, its one of the only photographs that includes the moon. It was moving in and out of clouds, so registered in this kind of interesting way.

seely_paris.jpgAS: How do you choose a place to photograph when you arrive in these foreign cities?

CS: I do a lot of research beforehand, so I already know where I’m going. I have a contact in each city that helps me scout and I always have someone with me when I’m shooting. I use Google Earth to figure out the lay of the land in each city. I do an image search of viewpoints which typically produces daytime shots that I use to find locations. I usually try to avoid the most popular spots and go to the secondary points. The shooting process inevitably leads to some interesting stories. In Kyoto, I photographed from a temple called Kiyomizu. Every fall, tourists from Japan come to Kyoto to see the leaves change, and the temple lights up the whole hillside of maple trees from underneath. It’s really amazing and absolutely gorgeous. During the shoot there was a dense crowd of people behind me pushing along so my two assistants and I had to protect the camera with our bodies. Before the planned exposure time was finished we got kicked out by a guard because tri-pods were not allowed. It was probably the most stressful shoot to date, which is ironic because the photograph is quite soothing.

seely_Kyoto.jpgAS: The story really adds to the essence of this photograph, and it seems like the back-story or, rather the concept, really supports the whole body of Lux. How much of your inspiration, investigation, and idea are you telling your audience in a gallery setting?

CS: In a gallery I include the NASA key and a statement about the work. In my statement, I emphasize the complexity of the beauty in the work and the back and forth between city and nature. When I lecture, I speak very openly about my ideas and inspiration–I like telling people all of it, mostly because I think being an artist is not only about the ideas being presented but the experience of making the work. While there is no doubt an environmental slant to the work and I have my own strong opinions about our relationship to the planet, something that is important to me is that the work stays very open. A goal of mine as an artist is not to judge or scold through the work and not to be didactic but rather to draw out questions and encourage a thoughtfulness about the subjects I’m touching on.

To me, it’s not as simple as, “we are bad.” It’s a much more complicated problem. So I make very careful decisions to stay away from saying things like “light pollution is bad”. Instead I feel like I am giving my audience tools. I offer them the map and images that are asking questions like, “what does this light mean?” I am very conscious of how I’ve laid out the concept toward keeping it very open.

seely_tokyo.jpgAS: That’s part of what I am saying about the back-story. Your live experience is really interesting and a part of this body.

CS:It’s also important to let the viewer do some of the work, so I offer a more interactive experience in a gallery space. I have a show up right now in Seattle featuring fifteen of the cities. I did a talk the night of the opening and got to hear about people’s experiences trying to figure out the identity of the cities and their back and forth between being really seduced by the images, and trying to grapple with the bigger ideas and how they relate to the decisions we make daily.

I am also working on a project, Lunar Resonant Streetlights, as a part of a design collective, Civil Twilight. These are streetlights that dim and brighten in correlations with the phases of the moon. When the moon is full the streetlight is dim, etc. It has been an amazing project and supplement to working on Lux. My involvement with the collective, has offered me real insight into the design world, which I never would have gained otherwise. The design world is an incredibly inspiring place right now. Design is becoming more about rethinking what is already there and how to get people excited again, in our case, how to reconnect people to the cycles of nature, for example. It’s becoming more about shifting our relationship to objects and ideas. In general, I am really interested in getting people talking, problem solving, and thinking about where we are in relationship to the planet.

AS: You are really setting up a visual discourse about the influence and impact of Western society on the world.

CS: Attitudes both in the US and globally have been rapidly changing, especially the attitudes promoted by Bush Administration compared to those of our current government. The streetlight project probably would not have received the same attention four years ago. We are in a really interesting time, and I am glad to see Lux as a part of this dialogue. It’s been a great experience traveling and speaking with individuals in all these cities about the project. Last year I received a San Francisco art commission; the economy then fell apart, and they lost all their funding. The comission was supposed to entail a very public display of photographs from Lux in City Hall and in bus stop kiosks around the city.

A major goal of mine is to make work that is accessible to the public so the average person can engage in the dialogue or simply appreciate the images and get something out of the message. I do see one of my roles an artist is to make my work function in different worlds.

seely_lasvegas.jpgAS: You sent me a link before this meeting, as part of an initiative that I am working on to bring another dialogue into my studio visits. You sent a video of a lecture by Benjamin Zander, Conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, and his inspirational talk on potential and possibility. How does this impact your teaching and your artistic practice?

CS: The idea of slowing down and nurturing is really important to me. I really liked how Benjamin Zander worked with the student in the video. His philosophy, which I agree with, is that everybody has incredible potential. There are always other real life, day to day things that get in the way of expanding this potential. So how does one find a way to nurture and find space in our lives for it? For me teaching is in form with my artistic practice, and I want to draw out the potential in my students. It’s really lucky to be able to go to art school, and, especially in undergrad, it’s hard to see how much is right in front of you. So I try and help students realize how exciting it is to be able to have this time to just think and make. It’s really an amazing time. The thinking that goes into being a teacher keeps me grounded and connected. I really love being able to teach and to make my own work and I aim to perpetuate Zander’s philosophy in both endeavors.