The Small Blessing of Being Seen

Photographer Jocelyn Lee captures often-overlooked forms of beauty with tenderness and respect

Two nude bodies with strong thighs and creamy skin lie intertwined on the ground. They are surrounded by green grass that looks as soft as a featherbed. Light shines down through the trees above, creating patches of gold on female flesh and forest floor. I’m reminded of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins I had to memorize in high school. “Glory be to God for dappled things,” I think as I examine the print. Nearby, photographer Jocelyn Lee stands quietly for a moment before directing my attention to another piece.

Her studio, located on Forest Avenue in Portland’s Woodfords Corner neighborhood, is filled with such joyful, quiet images. There are nude women floating in seaweed-thick dark water, standing ankle-deep in green moss, reaching for blossoming apple branches, and turning toward the stark light of a winter sun. The subjects are beautiful, but they do not look like professional models. They look like themselves. Again, I think of Hopkins and his love for all things “pied” and “counter, original, spare, strange…fickle, freckled.” Like Hopkins, Lee sees the splendor in nature, a category that includes the human body and its many different shapes, sizes, textures, and colors.

Like many people, Lee has noticed a growing distance between what she finds aesthetically moving and what popular culture tells her is desirable or pleasing. “I’ve become so frustrated with what we’re told is beautiful,” she explains. “I want to crack open the idea of beauty.” She’s tired of seeing the same kind of body presented again and again as a measure of human worth. She’s tired of the “skeletal teenagers” who populate fashion advertising: “I think our culture is quite twisted to hold that up,” she says. It’s not that thin, young women are ugly—it’s that there are so many varieties of beauty that are being ignored and overlooked, and as a result, many people feel as though beauty is something inaccessible to them, something that doesn’t apply to their bodies and lives. Although Lee has always loved to shoot portraits, she explains that this series, Bountiful, is more political than her earlier work. “I hope that it will make people more compassionate, more conscious of their own embodiment. And if they are a younger person looking at my work, I hope it will make them more sensitive to their stage of life.”

Lee has always been interested in the various possible stages of a woman’s life, from young adulthood to pregnancy to middle age to the twilight years. Though her focus is primarily on women, she has shot people of other genders, documenting the same people as they age. “I’ve always photographed what I’m interested in,” she says. “Photographing women is a way of understanding my life path. I would photograph stages of life that I was curious about.” Before she became pregnant, Lee turned her camera on her pregnant friends, capturing their bare bodies at ease, revealing the natural changes that come with childbearing. As her parents were dying, Lee used her camera as a way to help understand the transitional phase between life and death. “Now I’m 57, and I’m photographing women in their 70s,” she says. “I’m still trying to understand where I am on this path.” The “frank, honest exchange” that happens between sitter and photographer helps Lee understand her place in the world and her own body’s journey through the years. (Lee is currently working to publish Sovereign, a monograph that pulls from two series, Dark Matter and The Appearance of Things, and focuses on images of women as they age. It is available now for preorder from Minor Matters Books.)

As Lee began to shoot more and more women in their later years, she became more invested in learning about their lives and seeing their work. She noticed that there were many great photographers and artists working who had, seemingly, been forgotten by the greater art world. At Speedwell Galleries, her nonprofit art venue in Portland, Lee works alongside assistant director Erin Hutton to shine light on mid- to late-career women who are “flying under the radar.” (They also show artists from other groups that have historically been excluded from the canon, including members of the LGBTQ+ community.) “We just showed a woman last year who is in the collections of the Met and the MoMA, but she doesn’t even have gallery representation,” says Lee. Andrea Modica has been a “rock star in photography” for her entire career, yet she’s currently selling her prints out of a portfolio. According to Lee, “commercial galleries are really imbalanced” when it comes to gender (studies have backed up this assertion), and she wants to help “correct that imbalance.” She’s invited a strong list of established women artists and thinkers, including Abby Shahn and Lily King, to show at Speedwell and participate in online events with Speedwell Live, a quarantine-inspired project that aims to “bring art into people’s living rooms.” She says, “There’s a reason we put up the ‘Hopeful’ sign outside,” referring to a large piece by artist Charlie Hewitt mounted on top of the brick building on Forest Avenue. “We’re really trying to do something here.”

Donna McNeil, former executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, says that, as a curator and historian, she has “total respect for Jocelyn’s work.” McNeil’s respect extends so far that she even recently posed for Lee. The 75-year-old artist and yoga instructor spent a full day in front of the camera. She stood out in a rainstorm in the middle of a lake, she sat on a rock with ants biting her thighs, and she stood on her head, quietly waiting for Lee to find the right shot. “But I still lost myself in the process,” McNeil says. “When you’re in it, you’re in it.” McNeil says she didn’t feel like she was just posing for a picture—she was working with Lee to create a new work. “The artist–model relationship is all about building trust, and Joce-lyn does that,” she says. The process feels calm, almost medi-tative, and Lee gives few physical directions, instead allowing her sitter to find what makes them comfortable. “She’s fear-lessly approaching the work,” adds McNeil. “She understands a person’s beauty in a very open and accepting way. You can feel, when you are with her, that she finds you beautiful.” Art, according to McNeil, is all about looking. “And Jocelyn can really see.”

Lee has long wondered what her models feel when they pose for her, and what makes them want to sit with her. Sometimes, she puts out calls for nude or partially nude models in the paper or online. Once, when she was traveling through Albuquerque a few years back, she placed an online ad for models. She said she could pay a small amount—$40—but wouldn’t ask too much of their time. “I had this idea that I could just go show up at a motel and people would meet me,” she remembers. “What surprised me was that it was almost all men who came. Over two days, they kept showing up to get their portraits done. Why did they come?” She has no answer to this question.

But she does recall one model in particular. He was an older man, and he was in the last stage of his life. He brought an oxygen tank with him, took off his clothing, and sat on the edge of the motel bed. In his picture, he looks dignified yet exhausted, pushed down by the weight of time, the suffering of long-term illness. “He told me he was dying,” Lee says, a note of reverence creeping into her voice. “It was shocking to me. He was so vulnerable.” It feels illogical, that someone with not long left on earth would chose to spend it in this strange encounter. I ask Lee why she thinks a dying man came to get his portrait shot inside an Albuquerque motel. She pauses for a long moment, her blue eyes distant. “I think,” she says, “that he needed to be seen.”

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