Christmas Cheer Never Looked So Unsettling

The Photo Blog
Dec. 25 2013 11:09 AM

The Spooky Side of Christmas Lights

Markus_Henttonen_House nr 1216

Markus Henttonen

Look at the photographs in Markus Henttonen’s exhibition, “Silent Night,” and you might instinctively imagine their focus is the nearly blinding Christmas decorations adorning the homes. In fact, they’re not about the dazzling displays. They’re not even about Christmas. They’re about darkness.

The Berlin-based Finnish photographer was first inspired by the visuals of the holiday season in 2011 on a trip to Los Angeles. But while some might have felt cheered by the decorations, Henttonen’s experience was quite different. “Somehow there was a lot of tension out on the quiet streets. Everything looked nice and good, but something didn’t feel right,” Henttonen said via email. “When there were no people around, just darkness and stillness combined with the bright decorations, there was a lot of room for imagination to take over and all kinds of feelings and questions came to mind. Why do we fear the darkness? Why did the houses feel ominous rather that inviting? Where is actually safer, inside or out?”

Henttonen spent two weeks leading up to Christmas that year and the next driving around Los Angeles with his wife looking for houses to photograph. “I was not really interested in the biggest or brightest lights, rather the whole visual of the house and its landscape and lights. I looked for narrative atmosphere that some houses presented more than others,” Henttonen said. “On my second year photographing, it was getting slower and more challenging because I wanted to find houses that would not be too similar to what I had already photographed.”

Markus_Henttonen_House nr 1009

Markus Henttonen

Markus_Henttonen_House nr 1151

Markus Henttonen

Markus_Henttonen_House nr 1038

Markus Henttonen


Henttonen thought about asking the homeowners for permission to photograph but ultimately decided not to do so. “Since we hardly ran into anyone out on the streets, it did not seem like a good idea to approach. Also the “armed response” signs and news about an older man shooting a young guy who had accidentally driven into a wrong yard did not support the idea. A couple of times someone came over to us and asked what we were doing. I said that we were photographing the nice Christmas lights, and the answer seemed to be satisfactory,” Henttonen said.

Henttonen shot a long exposure with a medium-format digital camera to achieve the ideal lighting conditions. On some occasions, he shot several frames of the same house, which he stitched together to get a better resolution. He printed the photographs for his exhibition on a fine art paper, which give the photographs of the decorations a soft, vintage feel. “In Finland, people decorate their homes too, but nothing so big. I have to say, at first I had the impression that maybe it was a bit too much with the different colored lights, Santas, reindeers, and all, but as I saw more of that, I kind of started to appreciate it,” Henttonen said. “People have really seen a lot of effort to decorate the season and doing so they bring joy to others too.”

Markus_Henttonen_House nr 1630

Markus Henttonen

Markus_Henttonen_House nr 1122

Markus Henttonen

While Henttonen said he enjoyed the novelty of spending the holidays in the United States, he said his time here ultimately didn’t help him understand how Americans celebrate Christmas. “Christmas is not the main point in this. The decorations were merely the visual starting point to this project,” Henttonen said. “The bright lights emphasize the tension and there is a bigger contrast to the shadows with them than without them.”

“Silent Night” is on display at Korjaamo Galleria in Helsinki through Jan. 26. A book of the photographs in “Silent Night” is available through Henttonen’s website.

Markus_Henttonen_House nr 1180

Markus Henttonen

Markus_Henttonen_House nr 1481

Markus Henttonen

Markus_Henttonen_House nr 1397

Markus Henttonen

Markus_Henttonen_House nr 1096

Markus Henttonen

Markus_Henttonen_House nr 1546

Markus Henttonen

Jordan G. Teicher writes about photography for Slates Behold blog. Follow him on Twitter.



Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Paul Farmer: Up to 90 Percent of Ebola Patients Should Survive

Is he right?


“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.


The Right to Run

If you can vote, you should be able to run for public office—any office.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 6:30 PM The Tragedies That Have Shaped Canada's Gun Politics
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 3:06 PM Writer William Giraldi Wishes Everyone Would Please Stop Likening Him to a Literary Genius
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 2:59 PM Netizen Report: Twitter Users Under Fire in Mexico, Venezuela, Turkey
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.