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.”
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.”
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.