Several years ago, we received an email from Danelle Manthey, a professional photographer from New York City. For over a decade she has travelled the country photographing people and their Christmas lights. She was contacting us to inquire about visiting our display so we set a time for her to visit and looked forward to seeing what she would come up with. We were interested in what made this project become important to her.
When growing up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota Danelle says “I merely enjoyed the displays viscerally. Each year my family would load up in the car and drive around town looking for houses covered in Christmas lights.” Helpfully, the local paper published a map to help find the best displays. The streets would be renamed to, for example, Candy Cane Lane, Church Lane, and Penguin Lane. Danelle admits that these homes were mostly modest compared to some of today’s “mega displays”.
Later, as an adult, Danelle was visiting family for the holidays, and she and her sister were wedged in the back of the car as they had been in childhood. During this visit Danelle’s sister suggested that she photograph the lights. “I realized then I was not as intrigued by the lights as I was by the people behind them,” Danelle recalls. After taking some photos and not being happy with the result, she dropped the project. However, in 2005, she decided to return to Sioux Falls and try again, this time with camera equipment that could shoot horizontal pictures. This allowed her to take the photos she wanted, and she then spent the next decade on the road every holiday season! Each year, the project grew in both geography – 12 states at all – but also in her approach.
She discovered a huge online community devoted to Christmas lights and to supporting each other through forums, websites, and blogs. Danelle quickly realized that Christmas decorators devote an astounding amount of time, effort, and creative energy for a few weeks of splendor. They often spend a large portion of the year repairing and updating displays honing craftsman and technical skills while planning the years upcoming extravaganza with family and friends.
“These people were no less hospitable to me,” she remembers. Complete strangers all over the country sat patiently while she tried to conjure magic photographic moments that capture their art as well as the creators themselves. “We spent time together and I was often invited into their homes,” Danelle has explained. “It became my passion to photograph the Christmas lights and the people behind them. Along the way I learned much and came to truly appreciate what they do as a distinct form of American folk art.”
In 2020, the book project has seen the light of day in “American Christmas”. Danelle calls the book a tribute to people give us themselves for the benefit of others. It is an art form rooted in community and tradition in the same vein of traditional folk art. The passion for this project is evident in the final product. Danelle’s approach to photographing Christmas lights is special because she has made this about the creators and their families.
“My images are just a glimpse into this world,” she says. “They are offered in the hope I have captured its spirit as well.”
Check out the details of the book, and pick up your copy, at American Christmas Book. This is not just a photography book. The text and photographic content meld together to show the complete story of the lights and the people behind them. Order from the website and take 20% off with the discount code: AMERICANXMAS.
This article contains excerpts from the book “American Christmas”.
Permission for use has been provided by Danelle Manthey.