In person, she is thoughtful and sharp with an air of quiet authority and a touch of mystery, too. They are qualities she very much brings to her own body of work, marked by portraits of individuals who come across as substantial individuals in part because they are laden with personality and depth.
Lee works a lot with black and white photography, using it mainly in portrait work but also mixing it in her commercial work and while the images often feel serious, Lee has a light, humanistic touch that adds a fresh feel to the medium. Currently living in New York, she splits work time with Los Angeles. Check out our interview with her and more images below.
To see more of her portfolio, visit her website.
Snobette: What are you working on right now?
Lani Lee: “Black and white portraits. They’re different from my other portraits, they’re on a dark grey background with one light. They feel really rich and heavy, like they always seem to have a physical sense of weight and there’s no distraction from the person. I’m going back to LA in October to shoot some of the guys from the MSK Graffiti crew.”
Snobette: Have you always had a preference for black and white?
Lani Lee: “Black and white has always been my favorite. My first year of school we were only allowed to shoot in black and white and only in film so I was trained to see the world in grayscale. It’s less distracting. For me, I really see the light versus the color.”
Snobette: So where did you attend school?
Lani Lee: “I graduated from the Art Institute of Seattle with a degree in photography. But that came after my first job. When I was 17 or 18, I had bought a cheap digital camera when they first became accessible and went to a break dancing convention in L.A. I ended taking a few photos and someone from a break dancing magazine liked the photo and offered me a job in New York.”
Snobette: Nowadays when you are on a shoot, what are your must-have item?
Lani Lee: “I would say my Olympus Pen P5 and Pen P3, a Pro-Photo mono light kit, reflectors are important, an Octabank, and I like using Polaroid cameras as well. I like film when I am able to shoot it.”
Snobette: Part of photography is creating attractive images. What is your main method for shooting people so they look good?
Lani Lee: “I think by finding the essence of what it is that’s beautiful about the person and then finding out what they are insecure about and being sensitive to it. That way they can let go and shine through. Of course lighting and composition are important too.”
Snobette: How do you balance making someone appear attractive with showing truth?
Lani Lee: “With commercial photography, advertising in general is a lie. But artistically, my truth is to find and see the beauty in someone, even if that’s not what someone else would find beautiful. Something that can be considered a flaw or ugly can become a beautiful truth.”
Snobette: There’s a lot of controversy around retouching of photos in fashion. With the jobs you work on, how much is that a part of the process?
Lani Lee: “A very minimal amount of retouching. With Tabatha [McGurr and the Married to the Mob lookbook], all we did was remove some bruises around her knees and soften a tan mark on her back. We are almost never cinching waists and enlarging breasts or doing these crazy big things.”
Snobette: Looking back on your early years, how do you first remember expressing yourself creatively?
Lani Lee: “Looking back I can see a lot of photography influence with collaging and I shot a lot on disposable cameras. We didn’t have a lot of money, I didn’t finish high school and so I didn’t end up in a high school photography program. I was interested in grafitti but I wasn’t very good at it. No matter how much I practiced, drawing didn’t come naturally to me at all. When I was eight, nine, ten, I would set up little photo shots and photo scenarios and shoot with disposable cameras. Everything from shooting a friend and having all the clothes laid out or shooting a cat against a sheet. I would have to come up with money to get picture processed and go pick them up at Costco.”
Snobette: Is your mom an artist?
Lani Lee: “She’s a midwife. My mom was really amazing with presentation, whether the house or food, her visual ascetic was something I always remembered. Presentation was always important to her.”
Snobette: How do you process a job once it’s over. Are you a perfectionist?
Lani Lee: “I don’t feel like perfectionist is a good definition for me. I have a strong work ethic and strong sense of intuition. When a shoot isn’t as it was originally outlined to be, I let all the things that don’t happen be a jumping off point for what could happen. I try to let the mistakes or bad weather be the elements that can take the shoot to the next level. I feel like, I’m harder on the editing process. I don’t want to send stuff out that’s not great. I don’t want my client to have anything I’m not accepting of.”
Snobette: What was your first big job?
Lani Lee: “I did some work for Microsoft in 2005 and 2006 when it was trying to compete with the iPod. I was shooting rappers for them for about a year. It was exciting and my first time shooting celebrities, I found that there were a whole other set of skills to learn to be good at that.”
Snobette: How did you come to work for Playboy?
Lani Lee: “They hired a photo editor I had worked with when she was at Inked Magazine and she asked me to submit a deck. I got a call back and met them in person to plan our first shoot. It’s been a very pleasant experience. They’ve been a great client.”
Snobette: Are they very specific?
Lani Lee: “No, not at all, they’re really good about not micro-managing. One assignment was to pick three women who represented my idea of beauty. I picked a girl with purple hair who was short and curvy, a super skinny rocker looking girl with a wide gap between her front teeth, and a mixed Asian girl who was tall and thin and they really let me run with it. It was a great experience.”
Snobette: Photography and especially photography for a magazine like Playboy is still so dominated by men. What do you think are the qualities you possess that have enabled you to succeed in environment that many women would experience as hostile?
Lani Lee: “I don’t know, I always got along well in big groups of boys or men but without being the girl without girlfriends. On jobs, I feel like I’m able to use the fact that I’m a female to be a non-intimidating way to take control of a situation. I don’t get angry or openly frustrated. And whatever thing might occur, you roll with it, keep a poker face, I try to keep my emotions to myself. It’s important as a women to not come across as bitchy or emotional, more so than a man to not be considered irrational. I’m very careful with how I portray myself publicly, that it’s clear I’m a professional and this is what I do. Yet it seems like you still have to be attractive, which is the crazy part.”
Snobette: What have you learned from your male peers?
Lani Lee: “My male peers have been amazing! They teach me whatever they have to offer. Its a small community, we tend to share information. And they show me that they have similar struggles. Rarely have I felt excluded or pushed out because I was a woman. With that being said most of my clients are still men and most of the other photographers I know are still men. But I think it is changing and I look forward to seeing more young girls following their passion, whatever that might be.”
Snobette: Who are some artists whose work you enjoy?
Lani Lee: “I love Annie Leibowitz and that she started out doing documentary style photos; Araki, a Japanese photographer, Sam Haskins, and Judith Supine, a NY collage artist.”
What would be your dream job?
Lani Lee: “I’m so in love with the Vice HBO show, if I could go with them while they do their filming I’d be a really happy camper. I think they cover great topics and they do it with such integrity.”