Luupe photographer Clarissa Bonet’s elaborately staged, street-photography-inspired photos give her brand photography an unexpected edge. We speak with Bonet to learn the secret to her creative balance.

Over the past decade, Clarissa Bonet has made a name for herself for her immaculately lit, thoughtfully staged, architecturally-framed street photos. Using Chicago’s downtown, office-building landscape as her set, she’s known for creating images that feel spontaneous despite being heavily directed and produced.

Initially, Bonet’s unique vision and process led to success in the gallery world with representation by Catherine Edelman Gallery, awards from the Magenta Foundation, Hasselblad, and the PDN30, and exhibitions at Museum of Contemporary Photography, Berlin’s Bauhaus Gallery, and Clamp Art in NYC. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. recently named her as a finalist in their Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition  – her photo will be included in a major exhibition premiering in D.C. in early 2022 before traveling to other cities in the United States.

While she’s supplemented her personal work with commercial and editorial work for years, the pandemic ignited new ideas for expanding her dynamic vision for brands.

We speak with Bonet about her fascinating career and her move to expand commercial photography beyond the side hustle.

Calculation, 2019. From the series City Space. © Clarissa Bonet, Courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago

The Luupe: We first came to your work years and years ago via your street photography and have been following your work since. One of the things that is most striking about that, nearly all of your art-photography, and your commercial practice is how light and architecture frames your vision.

Clarissa Bonet: I think a great deal about the language of photography and the ways in which I can utilize the inherent tools of the medium to transform what’s before my lens. One fundamental tool is light. I’m fascinated by its transformational powers and ability to imbue images with emotional impact.

As for the architectural element, I’m interested in the experience of the body in space in relation to the built environment. Over the years, I’ve refined the practice of utilizing light and architectural elements, and I learned how to visually express ideas, notions, and concepts through my artistic practice. I bring all these things to my commercial work.

© Clarissa Bonet for Harlan Collection

 

Meet Clarissa Bonet

The Luupe: In your street photography that there are a lot of behind-the-scenes pieces of the production that viewers might now be aware of. They often feel like spontaneous moments, but involve heavy scouting, signaling models on walkie talkies, and so much more. Can you tell us a bit about the process behind the scenes?

Bonet: Sure! I adopt the visual language of street photography and use it as a conceptual vehicle for my work. Although the images appear spontaneous, they are controlled performances for my camera. Each image is a small-scale production, and I wear many hats in the process.

After coming up with a concept for an image, I location-scout, cast talent, select props and wardrobe, put together my crew, which often includes 1-2 assistants, send out call sheets, and cross my fingers that we have good weather on shoot day.

With my fine art practice, I heavily rely on natural lighting to create the dynamic lighting in the work. During the shoot itself, I’m often quite distant from my subject, and the loud city sounds prevent me from directly speaking to my sitters. I rely on an assistant, who stands close to my subjects to relay my directions to the models. We’ve experimented over the years.

The best method is using phones and bluetooth earbuds to communicate. The benefit is that no one around us can pick up our chatter, which happened when we were using walkie talkies.

The Crossing, 2011. From the series City Space. © Clarissa Bonet, Courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago

The Luupe: Chicago is such a deep piece of that. The architecture. The light. So much more…

Bonet: Chicago has been a deeply inspirational place for me to live and work. I came to the city to study at Columbia College for my MFA. I had no preconceived notions of what my life or work would look like as a result of this shift in environment. As soon as I stepped foot in Chicago, I
felt its gravitational pull. It has a rich, creative history that is quite literally written into the built environment.

The city also has a very specific relationship with light, as the city structures collaborate with the sun to create canyons of light and shadow in which the dramas of everyday life unfold.

Fortress, 2016. From the series City Space. © Clarissa Bonet, Courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago

The Luupe: There’s also a kind of “stillness” and quiet stretching through your work…

Bonet: Perhaps the stillness and quietude in my work comes from the introverted nature of my experience of the world. In general, I’m a reserved, observational person. I’m often contemplating and questioning my experiences, surroundings, and environment. This comes out visually in my work, particularly in how I pose people so as to make them appear genuine and unaffected.

I often try to make my sitters comfortable so I can observe how they hold their bodies, and then utilize some of their natural gestures in the photographs. Doing this creates images that feel calm, quiet, and relaxed.

Trajectory, 2018. From the series City Space. © Clarissa Bonet, Courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago

The Luupe: Do you make any distinctions in how you approach your commercial practice, working with brands, etc?

Bonet: My fine art practice is the foundation upon which I build my commercial practice. I approach each assignment or job as though it were an image for my artistic practice. I research, location-scout or construct a set, identify props, and define a wardrobe, etc.

I’ve found that if I approach each project through the lens of my artistic practice, it yields a favorably comparable result.

Most often, clients hire me because of my artistic practice and strong visual aesthetic, and to stay true to that I must engage in the same preparations and process I use for my personal work.

© Clarissa Bonet for Harlen Collection

The Luupe: That’s great. Have there been any recent commercial or editorial job that offered new challenges or insights, to how you think, see, etc?

Bonet: Covid has challenged me to work differently over the past 18 months. I’ve been working more in-studio, for my fine art work as well as for commercial projects. I’ve been working with Harlen Handbags for a few years now, and absolutely love working with them.

Due to Covid limitations, instead of continuing to shoot on-location, I began shooting still lifes of the Harlen handbags in-studio. It was a challenge to design and build sets that reflected both my architectural aesthetic and the aesthetic of the brand. It was necessary to work with easily-sourced materials, and we did not have a set designer or prop stylist.

I have a background in prop styling, which is how I learned most of what I know about the commercial world, so I relied on those skills to design the sets — a first for me. I also styled and rigged the bags myself.

It was a wonderful challenge, and opened my eyes to new ways of being creative, spurred on by the limitations of the pandemic. We are in the process of planning our next shoot together, and I’m looking forward to the challenge of designing the next set for the shoot.

© Clarissa Bonet for the New York Times

The Luupe: You’re in the process of ramping up your commercial work more than ever before. Why now, and what are you looking for in collaboration with brands?

Bonet: As a fine art photographer, I’ve had to identify where I fit into the commercial industry, and what kinds of assignments or projects I am best suited for, and interested in taking on. The commercial space adds a layer of stability to my artistic practice. It helps me fund the making of my art, and in return, I keep growing as an artist and photographer, as we learn from everything we do in this world.

Over the years, and through a variety of assignments, I’ve been developing my vision for a commercial practice, and refining my approach. Most important to identify was how I could add value.

I’ve realized that I add value through my artistic voice and vision, and regard my approach as an artful strategy to further the client’s goals. I’ve been fortunate to work with wonderful people who have granted me a level of creative control or input over the images I make for them. I find this
collaborative approach to be a rewarding and positive experience for everyone involved and seek this type of collaboration in brands that I work with.

Of late, creativity has kept businesses open, and enabled success in a newly-limited world. The most successful were those who found unique ways to remain relevant despite shifting norms. I see opportunities for businesses to team up with artists of all kinds to create fresh and original
content as people are craving something new and exciting right now.