Up-and-coming LA photographer Jesse Rieser shares on his holiday project and the effects of Instagram.
According to LA photographer Jesse Rieser, his project, “Christmas in America: Happy Birthday, Jesus,” is both sincere and celebratory. “It’s almost as if these folks have a built-in stage on the calendar to be creative,” Reiser says. He’s affectionately referring to his images of suburban homes decorated with blow-up lawn ornaments, sisters clad in festive Christmas sweaters, or light displays that result in a dizzying tangle of wires.
It’s this work, along with his recent project, “When Fall Came Early: The Drought Along the Arkansas River Basin,” that have put this photographer on the map. Rieser has already earned an array of accolades, including the sought-after Art Director’s Club Young Gun interdisciplinary award, which recognized him as one of the top emerging international creatives 30 and under. Here, we chat with Rieser about his past and present projects, working in LA, and the impact of Instagram on professional photography.
What drew you to photography and who inspired you? JESSE RIESER: My background is in drawing and painting and I stumbled into photography when one of my studio classes was canceled and a photo class opened up. Like most beginning students, we started in black and white and moved into color. Color really got me going and some of my early color influences were the moments captured by Martin Parr, the narratives of Larry Sultan. Today, I really admire the work of photographers who work both masterfully in the commercial market and their own personal projects, like Nadav Kander.
It seems that your photos celebrate “real” people. How do you capture that in LA? JR: No different than I would in my hometown of Springfield, MO, the American Southwest (where I also spend a lot of my time), or any other place. LA has an amazing history of diverse and rich culture. I think the last decade of reality television and the perception of celebrity gives LA a bad rap. Sure, you have the slickness that comes with the territory of the entertainment industry, but that’s just one puzzle piece that makes up the larger puzzle, which is the identity of Los Angeles. I’ve always thought LA is one of the cities that you can come to, be who you truly want to be without fear of judgment, and you still won’t be the most ‘interesting’ person you have come across that afternoon.
In what ways does living in LA affect your photography? JR: In a topical sense, my aesthetic and color palette comes directly from the diffused desert light. In a psychological sense, I am intrigued by the isolation of car culture vs. cities that have more pedestrian interaction, the urban sprawl, and the uncertain sustainability of a large metropolis on top of a desert.
Any secrets to such honest portrait photography? JR: I think it really depends on the photographer’s personality and approach. For me, I enjoy getting to know the subject, making them feel comfortable and disarmed, and in a sense, directing them in their own life.
Tell us about the “Christmas In America: Happy Birthday, Jesus” project. JR: It’s a project that I started in 2010 during my first Christmas in Phoenix, AZ, where my parents now live. At first, I wanted to explore the motivation of people’s outward celebration of the holiday, focusing on residences. Was it a keeping up with the Jones’? Was something carried over from their childhood, a community tradition? As I expanded beyond Phoenix and explored more of the country, so did my subject matter, like Christmas-themed events, religious attractions, and retail.
Who are the people in the collection? JR: The people are strangers I have met researching, interviewing, and exploring the neighborhoods—at times going door-to-door—of each city visited.
How is Instagram affecting the professional photographer? JR: I think Instagram and cell phone photography is an interesting phenomenon that is not exactly unfounded in regards to the history of photography. It is very familiar to when George Eastman released the Kodak camera at the turn of the 20th century. The price point put the medium into nearly everyone’s hands. For the professional photographer, it’s a great avenue to share your work. But in order to make yourself stand out and not devaluate your creative worth, it comes back to your artistic vision, strong ideas, and the execution of ideas. If technology has partially torn down the walls of having to be a technician, than you have to rely on your creative sensibilities.
And your newest project? JR: My newest project to be released in the coming months has a working title of “Asleep at the Wheel: The Spirit of a Nation.”This is a collaboration project with multiple novelists, creating short stories/essays and chapters all tying together the underlying theme, exploring the current psyche of America. I’m also wrapping up production on my first short film for the film festival circuit.