Christmas in America: Happy Birthday Jesus by Jesse Rieser
By Leah Pfenning
Jesse Rieser is a bi-coastal photographer, splitting his time between Phoenix and New York. Rieser considers himself a student of subtleties, exploring the intricacies of the quotidian through photography. This week I had the pleasure of chatting with Jesse about his 7 years of documenting Americans celebrating Christmas. In a hilarious show of excess, Rieser reminds us how endearing it is to flash that outward sign of inward cheer. Put your Santa hats on as Rieser reignites the thrill of joy in his series entitled Christmas in America: Happy Birthday Jesus.
And oh yea, MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!
Leah Pfenning: Your series Christmas in America: Happy Birthday Jesus (love the title) was inspired after you saw a four-story inflatable Santa that appeared to be guarding a Christmas tree lot. Can you explain how this absurd sighting acted as the segue into a 7-year-long documentation of American Christmas celebrations?
Jesse Rieser: Absolutely. So to backtrack a little, I grew up in Missouri and the first 29 years of my life were spent in my home state. I have another project that documents my parents. During the recession my dad lost his job and my parents had to move for work. I began documenting them, their starting over and their persevering, which led to my first holiday experience away from there, in the Phoenix area. At the time I was living in LA and as I’m driving into Phoenix, I see in the rear view mirror this almost “Stay-Puft” marshmallow man waving in the wind at me and I thought, oh, that’s very odd. I think the optics of being somewhere different made me see the holiday differently. After experiencing that and taking some notes in 2009, I jumped right into the project the next year. The first two years were focused in the Phoenix area, but after that, I moved on to other areas and states. I think right now I’ve covered sixteen to seventeen different states.
LP: You mention that you are a student of subtleties. How do you account for your ability to realize the ineffable expressions in the subjects you photograph? Do you know before you take the shot, or is it something you realize upon reflection?
JR: You know, that’s a good question. I don’t really know where that comes from. Maybe it’s from growing up in the Midwest with that middle-of-the-country mentality. I look at my approach as similar to how comedians focus on observational elements of everyday life as anecdotes. They find interesting ways to tell stories of familiar things that may be overlooked. That’s how I see a lot of the work that I do, finding something fantastic in the everyday. That’s why I love photography, as much as it is about inclusion in the frame, there’s also a level of omission. It’s how you can tell endless stories with the things right in front of you. The most obvious or interesting things to most people don’t interest me. It is those subtleties in life, and the process of making images that pose more questions than answers. It’s being at war with the obvious.
LP: You mention you developed your interest in the human condition during your upbringing in Missouri. How did your environment in your hometown shape your aesthetic and desire for visual storytelling?
JR: I think that growing up in the middle of the country, there’s kind of a mentality that it takes a little longer for everything to come to you. There’s almost an inferiority complex from being in the so-called “fly over states.” I think there is something subconscious in that, like you are almost the stepchild to Coastal America. Still, there’s a pride to it, but in the back of your mind you know you’re not always taken seriously.
LP: Engaging with your subjects is important to you in your work. Now that you live in a major metropolis, do you feel a sense of otherness when photographing subjects like the ones in this Christmas series?
JR: Not necessarily, I feel I have a gift from growing up where I did. I find that I’m as comfortable in those rural settings as I am in a more “culturally relevant” or urbanized setting. I feel I’ve developed a duality and a commonality that can extend to both pockets of American life.
LP: What moments were you looking to capture? Did you carry your camera around with you at all times, or did you plan specific outings to photograph?
JR: It’s a mix of both. Going into a new place you try to do as much pre-production and research as possible to yield the greatest results so you’re not just aimlessly wandering around. A lot of the portraits came about from me just knocking on people’s doors who I thought might be interesting. In modern times that’s a very strange thing, for a male in the middle of the afternoon to knock on someone’s door. But once I talk to them about the project people open up. I think there is a level of showmanship with each of these individuals in their pride, their affection, and in how they celebrate the holiday. I would say seventy five percent of the time people agree to let me photograph them, I think that is a pretty high return. It starts off from that initial awkward knock on the door to spending the afternoon or the sometimes the whole day with them.
It makes you feel good. Last year after the election everything was so divisive after Trump was elected, I got in my car and headed down to Texas knowing that I’m going to be spending time with people that I might philosophically and ideologically have many differences with. But it was relieving and therapeutic to not even touch on those subjects, instead just enjoy their company and their stories. For me it was a sort of healing process last year.
LP: What was your biggest take-away from shooting this series? Did you learn anything new?
JR: I think with anything it is really nice to hear about the lives of people who aren’t always like you. I think it’s healthy, especially in this political climate. The project probably started in a more cynical place: why are you doing all this, why are you devoting so much of your time and your resources into this? But then I quickly realized that it is sincere and celebratory, which is kind of adorable. I get it, you have this month or six weeks of escapism and its worth it to put in the effort. It’s nice really.
LP: When do you feel the most in the Holiday spirit?
JR: I have a small family. Christmas day is me, my girlfriend, my two brothers, my grandmother, and my parents, and that’s the most holiday spirit that I experience. It’s usually coupled with mimosas and the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. Maybe my dad is playing some old Bing Crosby record, too.
LP: White or colored Christmas lights?
JR: I’m more of a white Christmas light guy. Even though I work with these color-based, maximalist images, my personal aesthetic is pretty minimal.
LP: Best Christmas song?
JR: The best Christmas song… You know, I actually like a decent amount of Christmas music. Silent Night is pretty rad. I grew up in a secular house but something about Silent Night in a church choir-like setting is pretty cool.
LP: You have to leave something out for Santa and you're fresh out of milk and cookies, what’s plan b?
JR: Boy, that’s a really good question. Well let’s think what is Santa up to, maybe he needs a really great scarf with some Christmas light apparatus, or maybe he needs some gas money... a couple crumpled up ones?