We chatted with photographer and recent ILYSM collaborator, Justin Lee about cinematic realism and highlighting New York culture.
I love your recent stoop series, what is the story behind the concept and the people you chose to highlight?
So New York's stoop culture has always been one of my favorite things about the city. Stoops are almost like these blank canvases that adapt to an endless range of different social experiences. And even when everything changed last year, the best parts of hanging out on a stoop didn't go away. The connection, the familiarity, the intimacy - all of that was still there. We just added more masks and distance. Stoops actually became one of the few remaining places we could safely and responsibly connect with other people, and I wanted to document what that looked like, and how it felt.
The subjects all came about pretty organically. I was biking around Brooklyn pretty much non-stop last summer and anytime I saw people on their stoops, I would say hi, tell them about my project and ask if they'd like to take part. The vast majority of people were incredibly receptive. I even met one woman who wrote her first thesis and on the unwritten social rules and etiquette of stoop culture. The one thing I did want to capture was the breadth of different stoop hangs - there's families, friends, couples, kids, neighbors, etc. and I wanted to show as much of that range as possible.
You have an interesting approach with lighting your subjects - what is your philosophy in utilizing natural lighting within your surroundings?
To be honest, it's all very improvisational. My overall philosophy is to always be malleable, so I'm often working off instinct and feel, coming up with ideas in the moment based on the light I have. I think that's why I gravitate towards lighting set-ups that feel organic and imperfect. Especially with natural light, for me it's about finding the right mood, and not necessarily what the "best" light is. Don't get me wrong, I'll definitely hunt for great natural light, but I try not to fixate matching the light to the set idea I had in my head. It's more about shaping an image that vibes with the light in front of me.
What's the most arresting image you have seen lately?
Ooh, that's a great question. My grandfather, who passed away when I was a kid, was this really great photographer. He focused mostly on historical Korean architecture, but he also did portraits as well. So recently I found a bunch of his old negatives at my parent's place, and I started making prints. One of my favorites is this one here. I'm of course biased, but I think it's stunning. It does what my favorite images do, which is hint at a story that can be interpreted in a million different ways the more you look at it. There's this really beautiful, incomprehensible strangeness to it, and it doesn't really try to explain itself. It's all mood and texture and ambiguity. One of my favorite examples of an unfiltered, natural aesthetic that's highly cinematic at the same time. So basically exactly what I'm going for - he just did it way better.
Your vision is distinct in that it combines stylized portraiture with a cinematic edge, grounded in realism - how has your style evolved over the years?
Wow, that's a really great way of putting it! I think you're spot on - I definitely start from a place of realism, but I like to stretch and bend elements to create a sense of otherworldliness.
I think the biggest evolution of my style has been in the way I balance realism and more cinematic elements. On every shoot, I feel like I'm constantly experimenting with different ways to express that kind of visual dichotomy, and seeing how far I can push in either direction. That contrast is something I've become more and more comfortable experimenting with over the years, but it's never the exact same thing twice. I hate feeling like I'm going into a shoot with the intention of replicating something I've already done. I'm always trying to grow my style and find new ways of expressing it.
Your recent images showcasing the ILYSM Tabis are so striking. I love the fluidity of the lines and silhouettes, there's a real architectural movement happening - what was this shoot like? Did you come in with a certain direction or did the compositions happen more organically?
Thank you so much! The shoot was a lot of fun. For me, it was all about matching the energy and the vibe of the Tabis. So that's where we started. Messiah @loseurselfviolently (the model) and I came up with a conceptual direction that played into the Tabi's unique blend of bold, athletic lines and high-camp character. I was struck by how strong a physical presence the shoe has, so I wanted to make sure the images conveyed a sense of motion and flow. From there, nearly everything happened organically! Messiah styled the entire shoot with his own wardrobe, and on set we just kept exploring different poses and movements. When we found things we liked we'd dig deeper, but we didn't stay in one place too long. It was all about experimenting!
What's next for you and how can the ILYSM community continue to support you?
Well first I gotta say I absolutely love this community. There's such a strong creative energy behind it. So I feel like the biggest way the ILYSM community could support me is simply by being open to collaborating! That's what drew me to photography in the first place. I absolutely love learning about different creative fields and art forms, and photography is kind of my gateway into all those worlds. So if you you want to shoot, please hmu! :)
*For more information visit @leejm.studio www.justinleestudio.com