For a short while as a kid, I thought every home in America was like the McCallister's. While that's certainly not true, many Americans love to go "big" when it comes to Christmas. The classic American phenomenon is something fine art photographer Danelle Manthey explores in her ongoing series, American Christmas.
Now available to enjoy in a new book, the photographs reveal some of the most ambitious home festive displays and also turns the lens on the people behind them – exploring the passion, nostalgia, and utopian vision behind these visceral, site-specific wonders.
There's beauty, individuality, joy and humour throughout the New York photographer's stunning work. And above all, there's devotion. As we've seen from Clark Griswold, it's no easy feat decorating your entire property with fairy lights (the problem lies in the garage, Clark).
But we make no joke about it. The book features portraits and touching stories of more than 40 families and individuals across 12 American states – people whom Manthey believes are, in fact, folk artists – even though most do not view themselves that way. As explained in the book's foreword by Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum: "The truly amazing thing about these American grassroots artists, all of whom became bitten by the pine-scented Christmas bug, lies in the diversity of their motivations.
"Some had simply miserable childhood Christmas memories, so much so that they devoted their adult selves to rectification by building some ideal Christmas Nirvana. Others were blessed with splendidly precious holiday memories, embodying emotional peaks of familial joy. All over the world, the single most common theme of visionary artists who create an artistic environment is some Eden-Esque Utopia, and Christmas, especially since WW1, has been at the top of the American concept of earthly paradise."
American Christmas is the result of over a decade of work, dedicated to the subject. When did the fascination begin? "As a child in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where my family had a tradition of driving around town in search of houses covered in lights," says Manthey. "Later, I realised I wasn't as intrigued by the lights as I was by the people behind them.
"In my photography practice, I aim to capture my subjects in shrines of self-expression. Through this project, I reveal what makes these displays so special – the creators' artistic vision, homespun passion and ability to share happiness."
With Covid-19 cancelling in-person gatherings in some parts of the world and anxiety in the political arena in America and Europe, it feels like more people than ever are leaning into the Christmas season early this year. People are putting up Christmas trees well before Thanksgiving, and I've seen Christmas lights going up in my street already. People want their homes to feel joyous right now. Which makes Danelle Manthey's American Christmas feel more timely. Particularly when we want the comfort and beauty of the holiday season to brighten the darkness.
American Christmas by Danelle Manthey is available to order at americanchristmasbook.com.