Women Photographing Women:
Contemplating the Appearance of Things by Jocelyn Lee
It is quite possible that female photographers see women differently than male photographers do. How could they not? After all, women understand how it feels to be observed by men, often as an object. It makes sense that a woman behind the camera may employ photographing women as a way to subvert the male gaze or to explore the complexities of her gender. Female photographers can also establish a natural connection to their subject without considering sexuality the primary focus. Of course, this is not always the case, but it happens to ring true while contemplating the work of Jocelyn Lee in her series, The Appearance of Things.
Lee’s portraits of women are an ethereal experience of grace found in subjects of various ages and body types as she investigates the phases of women’s lives through cycles of nature. A woman’s body is once fertile and ripe but transforms with age like autumn leaves whose colors deepen into shades of purple and red – the colors of power, ambition, passion, and love. When combined with organic elements like fruit, flowers, foliage, and the natural landscape, the images remind us that the female body is exquisite in all of its stages of being.
Lee’s photographs are not only packed with symbolism, several allude to Renaissance paintings of voluptuous females created by male painters. In Winter Venus Lee reinvents Botticelli’s Birth of Venus who is pictured in the form of a curvaceous figure that could have stepped directly from a canvas in the Louvre; her soft curves indicative of fertility that was considered a desirable body-type in centuries past. However, Lee juxtaposes the supple figure against barren winter trees, not a bountiful landscape, leaving the viewer to ponder more contemporary issues regarding standards of female beauty. Her red pubic hair complements her long flowing locks and her mythical nature but defies contemporary cultural norms.
In the image July Burn, Lee poses her model as an odalisque, which literally means female slave or member of a harem as seen in paintings like Grande Odalisque by Ingres. Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass also comes to mind minus the two clothed men and picnic lunch. However, Lee’s character has a sunburn giving a modern twist to romantic thought. Is this woman the object of a man’s viewing pleasure as the odalisque paintings were meant to be? The artist summons the viewer to decide.
Jenna appears as Eve in Jenna and the Fallen Apples. Her face is in shadow as she sits naked against the barren ground strewn with rotting apples while exposing the underside of her soft fleshy thighs and soles of her feet. She is Eve after the fall, alone in the garden without Adam, reflecting on her eviction from the home she knew. The aesthetic quality of the rich, dappled sunlight, the red of the apples and Eve’s cascading hair are visually compelling; then we notice her imperfections: dimpled thighs and dirty feet. It’s easy to forgive her these physical shortcomings in a way that women don’t forgive themselves for their own. After all, she is Eve.
Jocelyn Lee’s website features a quote by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it’s caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But, because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself.” Perhaps, this eloquently explains the artist’s intention in The Appearance of Things. Her female subjects either nude, clothed, voluptuous, young, old or classical in beauty become one with the natural world in a way that subverts the male gaze and explores the organic nature of being female in all its wonderful forms.