Navigating Chicago’s Urban Chaos: Photographer Clarissa Bonet’s New Work

Clarissa Bonet’s newest exhibitions City Spaces + Stray Light explore the connection between humans and the surrounding urban environment


It’s a cool, late fall morning. The lakefront breeze turns the city air frigid and harsh. Clarissa Bonet steps into the Chicago Loop to begin one of her “wanderings.” No earphones, no text alerts, no companion, not even her camera. She has no plan, no map, and no agenda. Just a couple of free hours to absorb the beauty—and chaos—of the surrounding world.

It’s rush hour, and the downtown area is buzzing with life. The Metra trains are unloading as hoards of passengers swarm the streets. It’s just another Chicago workday.

The young photographer follows the crowd, which squirms like bugs towards a distant light. People seem to move like a unit rather than individuals. Bonet lets herself get swept up in the city’s commuting commotion, the ebb and flow of workers retracing their morning routine. Constantly, new faces pass, lives flashing before her eyes only to disappear just as quickly. She attempts to pinpoint a face, hold onto that individual image before it is replaced with someone else. She tries, focusing on faces, on the people, but each one fades.

This is just one of Bonet’s many “wanderings.” These explorations are her source of inspiration, this experience spawning the idea for her 2011 piece, In the Crowd. In the photograph, faceless commuters blend into the surrounding city, becoming lost in black and grey monotony.

“I’m really paying attention to my viewpoint as an individual and how I experience the city on foot, and then how to make images recreating that experience, the pedestrian-inspired experience,” said Bonet.

Bonet currently has two photography series, City Space and Stray Light, on display at the Catherine Edelman Gallery in the River North neighborhood. The two exhibitions are actually separate but work cohesively, offering unique insight to urban life, space and its interaction with the physical world.

Bonet started the ongoing project City Space formally in 2011, but has been experimenting with urban images since moving to Chicago in 2009. Making the move to pursue a graduate degree at Columbia College, Bonet didn’t switch from shoreline to skyline with the snap of a lens.

“I remember feeling all of these conflicting emotions at once,” said Bonet. “I felt like I had to relearn how to navigate the city. I had to relearn how to photograph in the city... I was so overwhelmed by the amount of visual chaos.”

Turning her surroundings into art, the series focuses on the different kinds of spaces that comprise city life.

“All the images from City Space come from experiences of life, either personal experience or things I see happening on the street,” said Bonet. “I think about them, I make notes, I take sketches with my iPhone, and then I go back and recreate this performance for the camera.”

In her 2014 work Sweeping Traces, Bonet uses the mundane image of a man sweeping trash off a deserted sidewalk to display this lingering effect of human presence. The trash thus embodies the notion of human life beyond what the image displays. With her 2015 piece Removal, Bonet was inspired by a man who constantly washed the exterior of a glass building, only for it to be smudged again by passerbys, coming and going. The man continually erases these traces of life, only for them to reappear.

“With the City Space project I was thinking about the psychological and both physical space,” said Bonet. “I was really interested in these traces that were left behind in the urban environment and how we can feel the presence… of people when they are not actually physically present.”

Bonet keeps these themes prevalent in the Stray Light series as well.

“There’s a thread that pulls along into the Stray Light work in a really tangible way,” said Bonet. “Light is the traces of people and the human environment.”

Started in 2012, the project is comprised of nocturnal images from buildings in the major U.S. cities Chicago, L.A. and New York. The optical term stray light simply refers to unintended light.

In astronomy, stray light can arise from sky glow, the presence of artificial light in the sky. Sky glow is a form of light pollution that limits the ability to see faint objects, such as stars in a night sky.

Bonet likes to consider her images as compilations of stray light, too. Stitching together light from windows contrasted against the dark of night, Bonet creates an urban sky, or what she refers to as “man-made cosmos.”

“The windows I’m capturing are this kind of stray light, it’s this light that isn’t really intended for anyone but the user of the space… but then it’s also acting as this beacon of presence,” said Bonet. “This is a constructed environment, this is one of our byproducts, which is this beautiful thing but it also in a way is destroying the thing that I’m referencing.”

Walk through the gallery exhibition and Bonet’s photographs flow with cohesion. Concrete-greys mix with skyline slate blues and monotone hues, turning into pitch-black shadows. The urban cosmos add a pop of color, highlighting vibrant hues of illuminating greens, blues and fluorescent yellow.  The artist likes to think of her images like a television series: each image has a theme that can stand on its own, but the whole series also contains an overarching narrative embedded in each episode.

“I think the project as a whole has these overarching ideas that go behind it,” said Bonet. “These I feel like are a little chapter in a longer book.”

While the show may be her first solo exhibition with the gallery, Bonet has been associated with the Catherine Edelman Gallery for almost four years. As a recent graduate from Columbia College in 2012, Bonet entered a show juried by gallery owner Catherine Edelman. Edelman then invited Bonet to be a part of The Chicago Project, an online gallery devoted to rising photographers in the Chicago area. The pair built a relationship from there, until Bonet became a represented artist in 2015.

For Bonet, though, photography as an art form is less about the image and more about the experience.

“I think there’s something that falls short between an image of something and an experience of something,” said Bonet. “By constructing the works I’m able to get closer to that feeling because in essence I’m trying to photograph something that is almost not existent, invisible.”

Bonet’s City Space and Stray Light exhibitions are on view at the Catherine Edelman Gallery through Saturday, October 29.

For more information about Clarissa Bonet visit: clarissabonet.com


Top image: Catherine Edelman Gallery, Clarissa Bonet stands with her exhibitions, City Space and Stray Light.