Jocelyn Lee




Throughout her career, Jocelyn Lee (born 1962) has utilised portraiture as a tool to explore the tactile qualities of the living world. Her richly descriptive colour works emphasise the tonal and textural richness of foliage, fabrics and flesh. Lee is driven by existential themes, including those of sexuality, family, death and ageing.

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Watch : Jocelyn Lee in conversation with Catherine Troiano

Jocelyn Lee and Catherine Troiano in conversation at Huxley-Parlour Gallery, at the opening of Jocelyn Lee’s 2018 exhibition ‘The Appearance of Things’.


Catherine: So, Jocelyn, you come from quite a strict portrait background. And this series, it’s really engaging with a range of genres – portraiture yes, but also landscape and still life, and you both subvert traditional ideas of how these genres are presented and sort of transcend the idea of genre at all by melding them and blurring the lines in the way that you do. Is this something that’s important to you and is this something you’re thinking about as you make this series?

Jocelyn: It’s critical to this series. The other body of work and really what I’ve done for the last 25 years is much more traditional portraiture. I’m doing a series that’s a longitudinal study of women and girls from essentially birth to in some cases death. It’s very much about the narrative of these individual lives and its weighted on the psychology of portraiture where the subject is looking back at the viewer, and you’re very engaged with who they are at these given points in their life over time. Recently, I moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Maine in New England. And if any of you know, that’s a dramatically different landscape. And I was really overcome by nature and by the changes of seasons and we live on two acres and I think in many ways like artists, things happen to you intuitively and then you realise later what’s happened, you see it just as occurring in your work. I was making portraits as I had always made portraits, I often make nude portraits and I’m very interested in the body, it’s always the beginning of my subject. And I was bringing subjects out into the landscape and in many cases having them unclothed and naked. And then I started to do things where I stepped away from the subject and started to focus on the landscape and actually blurring the subject. And the background became the subject in a way, and the portrait dissolved into the landscape. So, these strange formal things started to happen kind of intuitively, and I became really interested in that – the way that the portrait, if you blur it or someone closes their eyes, what does that mean for the portrait? Is it the identity of the subject that you’re thinking about, or are you then passing over the face and looking at the environment within which they sit? So, I just became really intrigued by all of that and the other thing happened simultaneously…. I’ve never photographed still lives, and I started this body in still lives. So, very quickly I was making portraits that were sort of landscapes, still lives that were sort of landscapes, and still lives that also felt like portraits. So, they were all coming simultaneously, but a lot of that happened intuitively at first and then became really exciting, and then once you have the consciousness you dive into it.

Catherine: And you’ve spoken before about the transition picture. Can you talk a little bit about that as a moment of this change?

Jocelyn: She was a portrait of a young girl and she had a very white shirt on and it was very intense bright sun and she had artificially died red hair, and she was standing in front of the forsythia bush at the peak of its bloom, which is very, very, yellow, like a really gorgeous saturated yellow. And I was looking through my camera which is a very traditional film camera, it’s on a tripod, it’s very slow, the whole process is very slow. And I’m looking through the lens and I am wracking in out of focus between the forsythia and the girl, the forsythia and the girl, what’s more important to me. And I took several frames of her blurred, focusing on the forsythia and then when the film came back and I looked at the contact sheets, I thought that’s really interesting conceptually. That’s just an interesting photographic thing to do, to blur the human being, which is what we prioritise, and we prioritise that as the narrative centre, and to focus on the tree. And then formally it just worked because she had this crazy burning, like a burning bush of hair. And the sun was bouncing off of her white skin, she was like this reflective object. So, I began to do that more, and I began to think about how do we make the subject disappear or merge or dissolve into the landscape? And I was thinking about all these things too because I was now living in a somewhat rural environment where I felt much more connected to all of that, and it’s such an inspiring, in a really genuinely meaningful way. Many of these pictures, you wouldn’t know this, they are taken in my yard. Its right in my back yard, it took me a minute to think, oh, they are all in my yard. Not the floating woman, but many. I mean, this is right outside my kitchen, it’s interesting.

Catherine: And you mentioned a moment ago that nudity often is the starting point to some of your portraits. How important is it to have nude models, particularly in the context of this series and speaking about humans in the natural landscape?

Jocelyn: Nudity is very important to me for a lot of different reasons. There’s a kind of simplicity and minimalism and openness of narrative that I want the pictures to begin with. And clothing has story telling aspects to it, right, so there’s the clothes you wear begin a narrative. We all do it, you look at someone’s clothing and it begins to tell a story in a certain way, and its either your responses to what you think the clothing means, whatever it is, but it sends you down a path of a certain kind of narrative. So, taking the clothes off immediately kind of opens that. But then there’s also the incredible narrative of the body, and a lot of my work really fundamentally is about expanding ideas about beauty and our vulnerability and our shared human path from birth to this peak of blossoming which is what I’m also doing in the landscape, to fragility and death. And creating compassionate images that expand are appreciation for all of these stages. That is really the starting point of even my portraits of the longitudinal study of women and girls, where I photographed my mother from the time I was very young as a photographer to after she died. Like, it’s all about that arc. So, this is a different way of approaching it, but it’s still about that arc. And, nakedness is like, it’s the metaphor, literally nakedness, openness, vulnerability, cracking open those vulnerable places.

Catherine: Something that I really take away when I look at this work is a sense of tension. So, this idea of a tension between life and death, between the human and the natural environment, between the artificial and the living thing. How much is this something that you intentionally engage with, and how much of it just emerges from your process?

Jocelyn: I think that, I think a very critical part of photography is in the editing. And I agree that that tension is essential to a picture, it keeps the narrative of the picture moving, it keeps it alive. It’s not always something you can control, it’s often something you discover later through the process. It’s not necessarily something you’re thinking about when you make the picture. But those kind of tensions or associations or just expansions of the story are critical to me, I wouldn’t choose a picture if I didn’t feel like it had it. For example, some of what I think about and I don’t know if viewers think about it, but it keeps the picture alive for me is in this picture, with the eyes closed and she’s going into this really eternal, sensual state. But the mirrors empty, there’s this vacancy which is really strange, like why is that reflecting nothing. What is that an allegory for, what does that do to the picture? In this picture there’s so much lightness, but her part, the roots, literally the roots, are dark. And the dark roots to me, like I visually and formally connect them to the darkness of the branches. And those kinds of pictorial moments where you and I were talking yesterday about - the iceberg, I would never pick just a picture of a single iceberg, it’s too pictorially common… it’s a lovely picture, but it’s not what I want to do. And that to me is like twin shapes, there’s the solidity of the earth that’s echoed in the ephemeral nature of the ice. But they’re like shadows of each other. So those things, anyway, I do think a lot about that. And it happens photographically, mostly for me in the editing process where you see the image and you go oh, look at this, it’s another layer.

Catherine: And this tension to me produces and evokes the feeling of something being slightly off kilter, which I think also links back to how you’re sort of pushing the boundaries of genres. And you were saying a second ago if someone’s eyes are closed, is that a portrait, where does the portrait become a landscape, where does the landscape become a still life? And to me, that really connects with a sense of immersion in this body of work. Both subjects being immersed in their environments and also moving onto a sort of physical immersion that then becomes submersion in the still lives. Can you talk a little bit… I think the process of how you make the still life images is really interesting.

Jocelyn: Sure, I mean they happened intuitively. So, I moved to this rural place, I had this big yard. I got married, and these were my wedding flowers. Many photographers who are driven by nostalgia and preserving things. I couldn’t let go of these wedding flowers, I just couldn’t put them in the garbage. And I thought, what could I do with them? I had a big tub and I put them in the water, the way you allow sort of petals to float. And that was outside, and I just kind of kept visiting them everyday and it became really interesting really quickly to see it was a world unto itself, and these were bodies just like human bodies that went through decay and weightlessness or weightedness, and all of this stuff started happening, it was October in Maine and they would freeze at night and then unfreeze during the day, and the light would pass beneath because the tub was deep. So, depending on where the sun was in the sky, it created depth. And very quickly I thought, this is really interesting, this is a subject. And so, all of those things, it was kind of like an ‘aha’ moment, I am photographing and the subjects are becoming blurred, and I’m focusing on the landscape and then I’m making these pictures of these worlds within worlds of biological material, so they have been parallel to one another. And then I also started going back and looking at my archive of images, looking for landscape images that would work. So, they’re all meant and intended absolutely to be together.

Catherine: And that idea of preserving flowers by putting them into a trough of water is sort of tense in itself because it’s not how you might think of preserving flowers. But this idea of preservation also speaks to photography as a medium, as photography itself as a way of preserving a moment, as a way of preserving the world. Is that something that…?

Jocelyn: Absolutely. I think for me photography began as a way to slow the world down, it’s a very contemplative medium to me, it’s about asking questions and studying the world. The way I photograph is very, very, slow, it’s a heavy camera, it’s on a tripod, it’s me and another human being, or now me and all this material and these watery worlds. And it’s very contemplative, it’s very quiet and kind of intense. But it is, it’s a pause. It’s not street time, right, it’s not Gary Winogrand, it’s not the 70s with a Leica moving quickly, it’s very slow time. So that’s the way I approach subjects.

Catherine: And we touched on it very, very, briefly at the beginning, but all of this sort of collectively speaks to a much broader idea of existentialism and existential themes – aging, life, death, sexuality, but you’re representing these things in quite a beautiful way still with a very tender eye. How do you think about these broader themes when you’re working on a body of work like this?

Jocelyn: I think it just feels like the starting point. It is really why I make pictures and even though this body of work feels more allegorical, you know, there’s more obvious kind of still life and beauty and its more seductive in a different kind of way in terms of material and colour. The idea of that arc of life and asking those hard questions and using the camera to pause, to think about those hard questions. And they only reveal themselves in juxtaposition, that’s very important to photography. This is not about death, this is about bloom, but then there’s over there the older woman whose, she’s like alabaster, white, you know, kind of like a sculpture but incredibly beautiful, clearly of a certain age and her body has responded to gravity, and she’s, it’s the counterpoint. So, those… that’s the essential stuff that my pictures are about, and I’m just doing it in a different way now, a broader way, studying and collapsing the genres of portrait, landscape and still life. But it’s still about the ephemeral nature of the world, all of it – the ice will melt, and the hair will grey and the flowers will sink, and she’s rising up but gravity will take her down over there. You know, they’re all connected.

Catherine: And this idea of connection between images and juxtaposition, it presents a very strong narrative when you look at things together. And one way of really conveying that narrative that I think you get a real sense of in this space is, you know, first of all painting that wall a very dark colour so that the objects emerge sort of like jewels, and you see them in a different way than you would otherwise. And also standing in one corner of the gallery and seeing works across the room, and how objects that aren’t next to each other do speak to one another. How important is it for you to be involved in the installation process, and how do you feel like the installation of your work changes a perception of it?

Jocelyn: I think it’s critical, I mean I feel like as a photographer, the meaning of a photographer’s work is all about the edit and the juxtaposition of the pictures. And that’s the story telling, that’s where you really can tell the strongest version of your story. And with this body of work, juxtapositions now have become critical, where they’re really sort of tableaus, you know the ideas, we decided not to do this here but I’m having another show in June and it’s a very big space. And to tie all the images together we’re painting the entire gallery black. And the pictures will be spot lit on the wall, hung at different heights. So, they’ll feel almost like constellations, you know, there’ll be scale shifts and maybe a woman up high, and something else will be down low. And we’ll just feel like we’re floating in this ether of all of these worlds that are connected to one another in some way. Through our vision of them but also through the installation of them. So yes, juxtaposition is very important and now I’m starting to actually do it intentionally in the installation like that, like the black wall.

Catherine: And you just mentioned the idea of scale shifting. Particularly as I’m looking at that wall, you get a real sense of that as you see the floating woman directly next to something that’s obviously at a much larger scale. This evokes a sense of Surrealism which I think also links with a lot of the other works in that, we mentioned earlier, something about a little off kilter that results in sometimes the focus of a picture is not what you’d expect the picture to be. So, the lady in the bath, you don’t actually see any water in that image. Or the model with the sunburn, you’re sort of drawn towards the burn that then takes your eye towards the flower, that takes your eye towards the floral print on her rug or the picture of the woman round the corner with the dimpling in her beautiful porcelain skin. The sense of Surrealism, is that also something that comes out of your editing process or is that something that you focus on?

Jocelyn: I think that photography, if you look carefully its inherently surreal, because it allows you to focus on details that in the real world you don’t focus in the same way. And if you are mindful when you take the picture and you find, you know, just some kind of moment that excites you or pricks you, or something. Yeah, there is a native Surrealism to it. And I think about that a lot now with Photoshop and the way people try to do that kind of Surrealism, but its layered on top of images, its constructed in post-production. And what I find interesting because I was trained so classically photographically is finding that Surrealism in the natural world, in the negative, through really looking. Because it’s there, it’s just, you just have to take the time to see it. Like in that, the scale shift immediately creates a surreal relationship between those two pictures, but in that one picture of that upside down sunflower and the floating red cherries… what I love about that picture is the sky, that there are two worlds simultaneously, an underworld and an over world. Or in the picture of the red-haired Venus in the back, everything is so desaturated, it’s like monochromatic, everything’s white except her hair and her pubic hair. Like, that’s the brilliant colour, not the landscape, that’s the flowering, it’s her hair. So, that’s just how she is, and she’s amazing because you take the time to make a picture against a landscape that’s drained of colour. And you see her differently. That’s the beauty of photography when you use it to really look.

Catherine: Speaking of the Venus, there are a number of traditional themes throughout the history of painting and the history of the photography that you can pick up in some of these works. How important is it for you to engage in this dialogue with the past and with these traditions that precede you in your work?

Jocelyn: I think it’s important. When you get to a certain point and you’ve been making pictures for so long, there’s an archive of images in your head. As a portrait photographer, I’m aware of all of those kind of conventions, and I find it fun to play with them and to reference them, but then to upend them and do different things with them. And in that, she’s kind of like Ophelia, she’s like a Botticelli Venus but a very different, contemporary version of that. So, I think yes, I think about all of that. But it’s just like a pictorial play, it’s not the beginning and end of the picture.

Catherine: But to me it’s an interesting idea because it’s the sort of space you occupy between that moment and this moment in the same way that the subjects of these pictures occupy a sort of space that’s floating between a traditional representation of that genre and this idea of conservation celestiality that you spoke about being drawn out through the installations. So, for me, that’s an interesting comparison.

Jocelyn: Well, I hope that there’s… I hope that there’s a way in which the picture is inviting to the viewers, so there’s a familiarity in some ways with it formally. But that then you get inside of it, and there are other things that are triggering other layers of meaning. So, I want the viewer to sit with it, I want them to spend time there.

Catherine: And, how do you find your models, that some of them really represent one another and reflect one another visually, but then there are subtle differences. And looking around the space, you know, you could see the flaming red hair and assume that a number of models were actually the same women but they’re not.

Jocelyn: I find them all different ways. I find them sometimes through ads in the newspaper… its hard, unfortunately, to find older models who are willing to pose naked, so sometimes I have to go further afield, and then sometimes I have a nice reference to someone and that’s wonderful. And then, I’m connected to an art school so I will find art students who are willing to model, and often when I find a model and that its working, I’ll photograph them for a while. But then if someone’s really good, I have to step away because I’m not making pictures of just that one person. Like, this incredible woman with the red hair, I have to restrain myself because she’s so extraordinary, it can’t be about her. You know, it has to be broader.

Catherine: And you mentioned that a lot of these pictures were taken in your back yard. Where else do you photograph if not there, and how do you decide on these locations? Because they seem or feel very personal.

Jocelyn: Well, they’re often… I do think of myself more as a directorial photographer. I start with an idea in my mind about what I want and then it evolves a lot and changes in the actual shoot. But you know, I’m responding. In two acres, there’s a lot happening. So, a lot of just visually extraordinary things can go on in two acres naturally. So, I bring people there, but then I really wanted to photograph in the ocean, and I wanted to photograph that seaweed and the way the light reflects off the water. So, I found a location and I brought five models there, and we stayed for five days. So that’s very different from having someone coming to my house for two hours and working with the stuff that’s right outside. That we went on location. And you know, as the body of work evolves there are more and more landscapes that I want to touch on like the frozen landscape, you know that’s really important, that’s a part of the whole story. I happened to go to New Finland and the Arctic. So, I’m mining those images, but if there’s not enough there then I would go back to find that. So, in my mind’s eye, I know things that I want to fill out the body of work. It’s still in process.

Catherine: And that’s interesting, because that’s actually quite a different process to how you make the still lives of your wedding photographs. Because, that’s the sort of tracking of a process and the commitment to one subject and one concept which sort of mirrors the essence of being an artist in a way, is this commitment to a concept that drives a body of work. Did you feel like that when you were making the pictures?

Jocelyn: I think what happened is that the original impulse was very intuitive and then when I started to see… I’d never done that before. Started off on two such different directions. And then I thought, these are totally connected. And then once that consciousness was there… but it was hard, that felt like a radical shift for me to go from focusing on a portrait to thinking of the body of work to include a landscape image next to a still life image, next to a portrait. And there was a lot of thinking about is this working? Does this make sense conceptually? Will people understand it? So that was its own evolution. And now I feel like I’m filling in gaps. I don’t know what it’s like to write, but I imagine that if you do a first draft, and then you go back and you edit and you pull chunks from it, and you think well that didn’t work… so.

Catherine: By my count, that’s our time up.

Giles: Jocelyn and Catherine, thank you so much.

Photographic Career

Jocelyn Lee received her BA in philosophy and visual arts from Yale University and her MFA in photography from Hunter College. From 1990-1996, Lee lived with teenage mothers and fathers in Texas and Maine, documenting her compelling series The Youngest Parents: Teenage Pregnancy as it Shapes Lives (1997). The book was published in collaboration with Robert Coles and John Moses.

Her first monograph Nowhere but Here was published in 2010 and explored the idea of beauty and its poignant fragility. The subjects of Lee’s photographs frequently examine the concept of beauty. Lee’s series Women are Beautiful photographed women in intimate settings and aimed at expanding the definition of feminine beauty to include the more vulnerable stages of life, including adolescence, pregnancy, middle age, old age and illness.

Lee’s most recent series The Appearance of Things continues Lee’s ongoing examination of the physical world. The series encompasses still life, portrait and landscape genres as Lee explores the depiction of the body in an ephemeral landscape. The works in the series reflect in particular on the life cycle and the process of ageing.

Exhibitions and Awards

Lee taught photography at Princeton University from 2003-2012 and at Maine College of Art from 1993-2001. She has been a visiting artist at Yale University, Bowdoin College, Mass College of Art, and New York University. Lee has exhibited internationally, and her work is housed in the collections of many notable institutions, including The Yale Museum of Art, New Haven, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and The Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany.

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