Photographer Jesse Rieser Celebrates Your Celebrations, the Best Christmas Tradition of All
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
Christmas has been inflated, discarded, twisted, energized, and molded to fit into every possible tradition and purpose, which has given it an ever-adapting and often contradictory life of its own. It's the holiday's elephantine personality of wonder and absurdity that lead Photographer Jesse Rieser to start "Christmas In America: Happy Birthday Jesus", his seven-year-and-counting survey of a collective but diversely-manifested obsession. That and perhaps his strange encounter with an imposing inflatable Santa towering over a Christmas tree lot in Glendale, Arizona. As he shares in our interview below, his family’s move out west to the desert “was the first time [he] was in a new place seeing the holiday with new optics.”
Jesse isn't especially concerned with compiling evidence of "a war on Christmas" or parsing whether the holiday has tipped in favor of commodification over religion. The whole essence of Jesse's approach is much more reliant on his subjects, who happen to be some of the most zealous decorators and Christmas practitioners. He's documenting how different environments and traditions play into an individual's celebrations, with beautiful, hilarious, and slightly unsettling results, often all at once. When invited into his subjects' homes, he simply tries to direct them in their own lives, without exploitation or judgment. "It starts in this weird awkward dance on opposite sides of a front door screen to a lot of times having dinner with these people."
Jesse's also quick to note how the project has evolved from a place of slight cynicism to one of celebrating other people's celebrations, which many of his subjects might quickly declare a Christmas miracle. “Going out and meeting strangers, photographing their process, and my whole process of doing it has kind of become my own tradition. It's like Christmas inception. There's something fun about being on the road, going to new places, discovering new people and then, from a thematic angle, you have the holiday mixed in there and it's all new and fresh. It's almost the opposite of what you think of as a tradition."
Where are you spending the holidays this year?
I’m in Phoenix where my family lives. I go back and forth between LA, Phoenix and New York. Summers I'm in New York, the rest of the year when the weather's good out west I bounce between LA and Phoenix for work. But I’m here in the desert now.
So before diving into "Christmas in America", when did you first develop an interest in photography?
For me, getting into photography was about how quick you could work, because my background was in drawing and painting. So it was fascinating having this medium where you could work quickly and really explore ideas. But also too, I was born in the eighties, and my education was still analog and it was in the dark room. It's cliche as fuck, but as people say, there's something very magical the first time a print comes to life in the dark room and you're hooked. It's amazing. I miss part of that but with digital, there's a speed at which you can work and ideas that you can try and fail and succeed which is exciting.
It seems like the desert provides a pretty unique Christmas experience. How was "Christmas in America" born from that move?
So in 2009, during the downturn (I have another project based on this), my dad changed jobs and they sold the house I grew up in and relocated out here to Phoenix from Springfield, Missouri. That was the college town where my parents met. For the first 29 years of my life, we had our own family traditions. In 2009, it was the first time I was in a new place seeing the holiday with new optics because of their move. I was traveling in from Los Angeles one year and there's this 4-story inflatable Santa and I see it in my rearview mirror, just waving in the breeze. I’m thinking "Well that's really strange, in almost like a Stay Puft marshmallow kind of way.” And it was guarding this tree lot and I thought that was weird too. That first year I just kept seeing things like that out here. That was the initial inspiration for the project. Then in 2010, I officially got started.
What’s distinctly unique about Christmas celebrations out west?
What I've grown to find over the projects’ seven years is that the warmer climates give people the luxury and the freedom to go a little crazier with electronics and lights, compared to say when we made our way up to Portland or Seattle. And I think too there's some irony in how the perceived Hallmark or Dickens holiday with the snow and cold temperatures migrated west. There's something kind of odd or ironic in places like Las Vegas, or [Phoenix], or southern Texas where you still see these visual iconic references like carolers all bundled up.
They're almost taking some of the east coast tropes or London tropes and doing it even better.
Yeah and probably unknowingly...
So back to the giant Stay Puft marshmallow... have your new optics allowed you to better see the way people use Christmas or Christmas symbols? In that instance, Santa as security. Or Christmas lights and tropes to express patriotism. Have you seen the many different ways that people mold Christmas to their own ideas?
Totally. The very first image I made for the project, because you mention patriotism, was at this large Baptist church and they were using the parking lot as a staging area for a large Christmas parade. I have this image of this float that had these marines or green berets guarding Santa Claus. And on the float it says "protecting dreams." And I just thought it was so strange and it really set the tone for the future themes. It's very American and comical, but still a little uneasy. Santa's there flanked by these soldiers with these M16s. And they even went to the detail with these styrofoam carvings of actually putting shell casings on the ground around Santa's sleigh. And I'm thinking, "Man, I wish I could have been a fly on the wall in this meeting where you're pitching whomever to be like "Yeah and we're gonna have Santa and there's gonna be guns and a bald eagle and fuckin' Rudolph" and it's just so strange. Growing up in southern Missouri and living in London for a while and working in New York and LA, I’ve seen both of the political echo chambers. So it's almost like these converging Americas that we've seen raise their heads in this climate. For me, growing up in a smaller town in the midwest, almost the south, it just makes me feel maybe a little more balanced. But it still doesn't make it any less weird or humorous.
(Laughs) The number of people that had to say yes to that...
Yeah and I imagine it wasn't just a "yes." It was probably more of a growly "Fuck Yea," at least in my head.
(Laughs) Absolutely. So when you come across this stuff, what's your general process?
When it started in the beginning, I used a reference PDF from the local Phoenix paper of where to go see Christmas decorations so that was really interesting. So I'd take the PDF and visit these homes in the afternoon and knock on people's doors. And in this day and age to have a stranger knock on your door, it's few and far between, so you're met with a little bit of resistance. But I think there's a level of showmanship in what they do regardless that then they open up. If they agree to it, I set up a time to come back and photograph them with their belongings or what have you, and so it starts in this weird awkward dance on opposite sides of a front door screen to a lot of times having dinner with these people. You don't necessarily stay in touch but it becomes a very friendly jovial encounter which I think represents the season nicely.
As it progressed, and I began planning these three to four weeks on the road at a time, I would try to seek those things out and contact newspapers and magazines and use social media to get in touch with people that really know the community. So I have a level of pre-production as I would for an editorial or advertising shoot before. That allows me some efficiencies on what I'm looking for. But then there are always pivots. Some of the images are things I've planned for a while and people I wanted to see and some of it is just happenstance. So it's a nice marriage of fortuitous encounters with a level of planning and pre-production.
Have people who have come to enjoy the project reached out with tips on which neighbors you should go visit?
Absolutely. It's a lot like on the advertising side of things, where if me and my agent are presenting to an ad agency, I'll show the body of work and there's always inevitably people who are like "Have you done this? Have you done that? This would be really cool." And that's fairly helpful and usually they get the project so often there are some pretty good references. People are suggesting things constantly when they come across the work which is really helpful.
People are almost more likely to engage with you because the whole nature of putting up these carefully thought-out celebrations of Christmas requires a lot of time, probably on their front lawns setting everything up, saying hi to the neighbors. I imagine you're typically not going to be some hermit who doesn't like to interact with people.
Exactly. So one of the images (above) is all white and it's actually a living room. This guy, David Chuchla is his name, on a yearly basis he begins planning his decorations the weekend after his July 4th barbeque and pool party. So there is almost a yearlong investment for some of these people that really exemplifies their motivation and their devotions to this. It's really something.
In the same way that your subjects think about how they're going to decorate this year, and how they're going to either one-up their neighbors or their previous year, do you think about the project year-round? Or is it something where it gets to be November and you're like "alright, time to get this thing fired up again"?
There are ebbs and flows to it. This year, my commission schedule got in the way and I wasn't able to do as much this year as I would have liked. Which is okay because then it affords me to have a year off. It's a big undertaking to do this for four or five weeks because you only have this window of time that's relevant. You can't really do it every year, though I try to add and add. I'll make notes and keep a notebook about possible things.
Before the hurricanes this season, I was really entertaining the idea of Key West and southern Florida and I thought that would be interesting. And then I think my goal is to have a good solid five weeks in the New York area, and have that balance with the western and rural themes that we see. And then I'm going to use that material to get the project to a place that feels representative of America and not just be southern and western. And then shop it. There are a couple of publishers that have reached out and I just want it to feel like it's in a place where it feels done and representative of how I first saw the project. Photo books now, there's not a whole lot that can be crossover for people that don't speak the photographic vernacular. But I perceive this project as one that can be for the photo nerds but it can be for everybody. And it has that appeal. That's kind of the end goal with the project.
This definitely feels like a photo project that has those kinds of legs where it's not esoteric but much more universal. I would imagine my parents, for example, would get a kick out of a book like this. My dad takes pride in keeping his very minimal Christmas lights up year round so all he has to do is plug the cord in. His pride is in the minimalism of both the lights and the effort. So everyone, even if it's the exact opposite approach...
- there's a pride level to it.
And I think too there's something about it that people to relate to. It's not that people truly see a full version of themselves but they either know someone or see someone in themselves. Something from nostalgia or tradition or even the excess that they can relate to.
It sounds like you've been around quite a bit with this project. Do you go to different regions with that in mind, to keep them separate and highlight the differences, or just mix and match?
Each year I map out a different region and what would make the most sense as far as distance and climate. So last year was probably the biggest, most successful year just because I was able to do it so efficiently. And that's where I spent the first 3 weeks in Texas, which turned out the way I would have hoped. Just because there's something with the people of Texas that's so prideful and it's their own thing. It's not quite southern, it's not quite midwestern, it's just Texas. What was nice about that is you see what that pride creates. That there are things I came across that are undoubtedly Texas. So there are vignettes that I created that are like "Oh this is great, this is how Texas does it," from the monster truck with the green lights to some of the opulence in Dallas and the home interiors. Things like that that I feel help represent regional diversity is important, and uniquely their own.
And the cowboy boots?
That's San Antonio. I believe those are the largest cowboy boots in the world so during the holidays, they add the little Texas illuminated stars lined with Christmas lights.
Talking to these next-level celebrators of Christmas obviously humanizes them for you. How do you balance personalizing versus parodying them and their efforts? Some of the images are funny but at the same time, the subjects are also having fun with it.
I think with any project I try to be very thoughtful and careful. It's documentation and observation versus exploitation. And even though it might be humorous, I always like to think I'm directing these people in their own lives. I never want it to feel like I'm making fun of them. And it's more, we're having fun together. It is a fun and humorous theme and that is something I'm very mindful of. Because these people are trusting me to come into their homes, the last thing I want people to do is think I'm judging them or making fun of them. I'm just observing them and sharing their stories. And the sharing of the narrative like I said, it shouldn't come from a place of exploitation.
One thing I found in suburban neighborhoods all over the country is you find these pockets where people through the years of the tradition, it starts with one or two homes and then extends into the entire neighborhood. And I think this is an interesting point, especially true out west. Post-war America and the migration out west, people kind of wanted to be left alone and the advent of the attached garage where people get off work and pull into their cul-de-sac and park and go inside. You have this strange disconnect with neighbors and this lack of a sense of community.
And another thing I found which is interesting as a byproduct of some of these homes was that in that climate and culture in American suburbia, if the kids want to go [see the decorations] and the parents want to come, it then becomes this community center and it actually brings people together in this really adorable way.
That's awesome. it feels like every year, it becomes less likely that neighbors get to know one another. Like my parents on the phone will say, "Oh, you know, we're gonna drop by the block party this weekend." And I think "Oh you still do that? For some reason, I just assumed that died when I left."
It feels oddly dated. And I think it's important. We live in this amazing time of disruption and so-called connectivity. But then it's still very isolating. I think about last year when I set out for Texas and it was right after Thanksgiving. And like a lot of people, I was in that very strange hangover of the election and being mad. And everyone's part of their own echo chamber. And there was something very therapeutic about getting on the road and going to Texas and talking with people and spending time in their homes, knowing that politically or philosophically we probably are very different, but you're still good people. And that was good for me last year. And to expand on what you're saying, a lot of it feels antiquated anywhere outside of maybe New York City.
With this project, it's comforting to remember that even if you and the people around you are paring down their traditions, there are still so many people around the country going as all-out as ever. And I imagine for some, it's very closely tied to religion as well.
It is but I think a lot of it is also rooted in nostalgia and tradition. Meeting with some of these people, some of it's a carryover from their childhood. I think too there's a level of escapism, a chance to forget a lot of problems and just try to be joyous. The project started in maybe more of a cynical place and when I found the level of sincerity, it quickly became less about a "keeping up with the Joneses" phenomenon to really celebrating their celebration.
Through your description of this project, it sounds like you’d describe your upbringing as secular but still celebrating the holidays?
Yeah, both my parents grew up going to church. My dad is an atheist more or less and just hates organized religion, not to mention the "the hypocrisy and the evil it causes around the world." He's always been very vocal about it. But for us, our traditions were not a religious standpoint as much as it was just about family and those family traditions, and getting together. Christmas eve we would go out to dinner at this local Italian restaurant, the only thing open in small-town Missouri, and then we would drive around and look at Christmas lights and open a few gifts. And now our adult tradition with the family is Christmas day we make eggs benedict and drink a case of champagne mimosas and have horrible hangovers. I guess the tradition evolves as we have (laughs).
In terms of decorations, the tree was probably the biggest focal point. Listening to my dad's old vinyl records, you know the Bing Crosby Christmas Album or A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, which I think is still pretty dope.
Yeah, I listened to Charlie Brown a lot, and Ella Fitzgerald's Swingin’ Christmas one. It’s funny because now living in LA, if the rest of the WNW team there didn't start playing the Christmas songs, I would have had no idea Christmas was incoming.
Yeah, it's weird being out west. Not having those seasonal benchmarks or even milestones, it comes up very quickly. It's also when you first see Christmas ads galore the weekend after Halloween. It's like "Oh, we're in it. Okay, got it."
How do you feel about the Christmas ads and Christmas music coming as early as they do? I guess it’s commodifying Christmas much more than than people decorating. Do you see that as “the dark side” the way some people do, or more just inevitably the way it is?
Oh, I don't know. It's tough right? It's just hard when it feels like it's so early. My thing too was when Black Friday was going pretty hard, and then REI was finally like "get out, don't go shop", I thought that was pretty cool because these stores started advertising their sales opening up at 4 pm on Thanksgiving. I'm like, "Man that's kind of fucked. You should chill with the family." That felt dirty. Everything else I'm like, “Ehh it's kind of fun; fair game.”
Have your views about Christmas changed at all with this project?
I'd say my views are generally the same, but I'll also say this. Going out and meeting strangers, photographing their process, and my whole process of doing it has kind of become my own tradition. It's like Christmas inception. There's something fun about being on the road, going to new places, discovering new people and then, from a thematic angle, you have the holiday mixed in there and it's all new and fresh. It's almost the opposite of what you think of as a tradition.
It sounds like you have one of the best Christmas traditions there is, in terms of truly appreciating what everyone else is doing and, by proximity and engagement, experiencing it too.
(laughs) Thanks, man.
Do you think Christmas has changed since you started the project in 2010?
I don't know big picture if it's changed but I know for some of these people their own traditions have changed. Some of the early homeowners and subjects, one has passed away, some of have stopped doing it for whatever reason. Big picture I don't know. There are those talks of a "war on Christmas" and that level of political correctness. I don't really see that when I'm doing this type of work. A lot of it has a more humanistic standpoint and individual encounters than the typical talk points. Every now and then, and I don't know if it's necessarily people I've photographed, but you will encounter people who go out of their way to say "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays". So I'm just like "whatever, dude." I'm thinking there are other things to really worry about, but whatever.
Getting into your larger creative process and skill-set and how you've evolved over the years, do you see this project specifically opening new doors for you and teaching you a new set of skills in terms of meeting new people and approaching people?
I think it ties into my larger body of work. It's one finger in everything I do. It's really priding myself on working in an observational kind of way. Almost as really good comedians do. Taking those very everyday things or things that might go overlooked and then making it fantastic and with my sense of humor, my take. It fits nicely into that, but the project is visible and opens doors on the fine arts side of things, which I have one foot in, and the advertising and editorial commissions definitely as well.
It’s funny, through all the years, this was the first year a commercial project approached me about doing something holiday related. It was for JetBlue, but I was already booked on another project. I thought that was funny, showing the work as long as I have and it being is as visible as it has been, that I haven't done more Christmas-centric campaign work. But maybe in the future. The first time I shared it, I did an email blast that was in the photo annuals for 2011, and this creative director replied saying "Oh this is great. Who art directed this? Who was your art department? Who built these sets?" and I was like "Oh dude, this is the real deal, man."
Do you use the same camera for most of this project?
It started off mostly digital and some was film capture. And now I use the largest sensor in a DSLR body that is still mobile but affords me not to have to shoot as much film and do scans and still be able to do 32x40 or 24x36 gallery sized prints. Last year was the first year using some new technology and it definitely helps with printing these for a gallery show. Technology keeps getting better, you can't buy a bad camera but for me spending so much of my career on craft and then it's like everything being consumed on your phone... it is what it is. In this industry, you can't fight change, you kind of have to evolve and mutate to win. But there is something that feels strange when you know that the majority of eyes you reach with work is a phone. But hey, at least it's an avenue and mechanism to reach people you never have before.
Do you feel like gallery showings will become less common in photography?
Not really. As snackable as things have become and seen in almost this digital space, seeing them as an object and on the wall is very important. Even when I go into agencies, the prints in the books are beautiful so they can feel like an object. It's like "take a break from your fuckin screen. Let's see this as an object for what it is, and the craft for what it is" rather than it just being this 72dpi facsimile backlit on your screen. And it is giving people that option and I think people enjoy that and appreciate it in a way. Not only is it now being seen as an object, but I think there's a level thoughtfulness that's interpreted with that type of presentation.
Are there any other tricks of the trade that you've picked up with this project?
Not really. I do a lot of bigger advertising commissions and I do have a nice stable of gear in the studio so it affords me to have that flexibility of my own equipment to go on the road and not have to rent out of pocket. Just from a logistical standpoint, it's super nice. I took a pretty sound skillset going into the project but there are always things you learn along the way. Like that humans are amazing. They have infinite stories to tell and you just try to let them be themselves as much as possible. And, like I mentioned earlier, direct them in their own lives. And try to feel like a fly on the wall. That's I think one of my perceived strengths is working with people and being able to facilitate an environment that they're comfortable in, to facilitate these moments that don’t feel hyper-staged and hyper-contrived.
Do you have certain creative influences that you turn to regularly, photographically or otherwise? I can gather your sense of humor through talking but also in the images, so are there certain comedic influences you have as well?
It's tough. There are people's careers that I just think are amazing. One guy and this is an easy answer, his name's Nadav Kander. I really want to strive to have an equal career in the arts as I do advertising commissions and he's like the best to ever do that in my eyes. In a very mysterious and not having to bend and conform type of way. I would say comedically, and in terms of observational comedy, Seinfeld was the best to do it. Like I'm not saying I'm a Jerry Seinfeld of fucking photography -
(laughs) I think we have our headline...
(laughs) Goddammit, don't.
With that type of observational comedy, George Carlin's another influence. A lot of people see Larry Sultan, maybe less with this project than some of my past work. His dad relocated from New York out to Palm Springs and photographed his parents as they got older and he had a bunch of very observational, culturally-relevant projects. He's a great one too; I love his work, just super smart.
Alright, that should just about do it. I’ve got you marked down for The Charlie Brown Christmas Album. Is there a Christmas movie that stands above the rest for you?
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is pretty good ‘cause I was a kid when that came out. And there is a Griswaldian thing that I feel like people see in some of this work. So I have to say that. I can't say Die Hard. For this project, I have to say National Lampoon.
How are you celebrating Christmas this year?
Gonna go take my grandmother to lunch and take her shopping a little bit. Trying to get her in the spirit. Then a small family thing, it's a good time.