Recently I found myself on the east side of Detroit to photograph artist James Oscar Lee. Amid houses with caved-in roofs and boarded-up windows is Lee’s paint-smudged studio and home—an old bank with an ornate brick exterior.
The sprightly 28-year-old led me through a dark hallway and into a dim, high-ceiling room lined with his paintings. Underneath a ladder, a space heater cranked out a tiny stream of heat—the building’s only source of warmth. But I soon forgot about the frigid temperature while examining Lee’s works. A deep tangerine canvas with what I perceived as an animal’s head in mid-growl immediately caught my eye. I studied its intricate layers and saw several other objects etched into the canvas.
Indeed, it is an immersive experience to view Lee’s paintings, which shift for the viewer when, say, the artist flips a piece to its side (something Lee does when he is painting too). And the faces, objects and ideas contained in his works hinge on who, exactly, is viewing them. “I want a story to be told, but I want the viewer to construct their own story,” he said.
Lee pointed out some of the deeper layers and imagery in his works as he explained the painstaking process creating large-scale paintings. It requires constant assessments, “seeing what it could be, and then adding to it.” During marathon painting sessions, he frequently steps back from the canvas to digest his work’s relentless evolution. Though in a figurative sense, he is never positioned very far from any one painting.
“I will work for three days straight and then take a break,” he explained. “But even when I am not painting, I am always thinking about it.”
To photograph Lee in his creative space got me thinking about the different faces I have photographed all over the world. The connection that a photographer makes with her subject is an interesting one to unpack. It is intimate yet fleeting. One has maybe a moment, maybe longer (if she is lucky), to capture a person’s essence. The subject, in turn, invests trust in her photographer to do exactly that.
Ultimately, I’ve found taking portrait photography is an exercise that highlights our common threads—our desire to be understood, to communicate who we are to the world transcends borders and cultures. Here is a very small sample of portrait shots from near and far. I am forever grateful to the folks in these photos for allowing me to capture some small part of who they are.