PORTLAND, Maine — Internationally-exhibited artist and photographer Jocelyn Lee has published a new, 72-page coffee table book filled with unabashedly lush images of naked women. The full-color monograph pictures them sprawled nude on the beach, reclining in moss-bound forests and floating between the Earth and sky, immersed in silky lake water.
The light is gorgeous, their skin luminous. There’s no makeup, high heels or corsets, just natural bodies — sags, stretches, wrinkles, moles, gray hair and all.
That’s because all of the women are over 55.
It’s not just a stunt, meant to exploit or amuse. Lee wants her sumptuous new book of pictures to help smash a popular cultural lie: That women of a certain age are not beautiful, sensual and downright sexy.
“It’s time we revolutionize the image world and flood it full of real women in real bodies, feeling sensual and wonderful in their very human skin,” she said.
Shot on medium format film over the past 15 years, Lee has known some of the subjects for years. Others are friends of friends, or have found the photographer via Instagram. Several of the book’s images were made over five summer days at a rented house on Deer Isle.
Lee is a photographer of considerable technical skill as well as artistic vision. She uses her mastery of light, shadow and form to make deeply dignified, tranquil pictures. There’s nothing cutesy or titillating. The photographs radiate tranquility and grace.
In one image, a woman dries herself with a towel as water droplets cling to her hips and arms. In another, a fleshy subject makes eye contact with the camera. Standing in knee-deep water, a mastectomy scar stands in place of her right breast. A third picture, a nude woman with gray hair sits on a seaside rock, facing away from the viewer. Bathed in low, golden light, her feet are marked with mud.
Along with the nudes, Lee also included images of decaying flowers and fruit, floating on dark water. Like her human subjects, she reveals how the wilting blooms and bounty retain their essential grace and allure.
Recently, Lee — a former Guggenheim Fellow — sat down to talk about her new work at her studio on Portland’s Cassidy Point.
Q: What is this body of work all about?
A: It’s about showing what real bodies look like, and creating compassionate empathy for them. We’re inundated with a false sense of what the human body is. It denies all these other wonderful variations. It denies that all bodies are sexy and sensual and beautiful — and capable of all levels of human experience.
Q: Where does that false sense come from?
A: The whole image culture of social media, and our culture in general, is squashed into this tiny, little range of what beauty is — it’s both cruel and destructive, especially the way it bakes into the brains of young people. The culture is so biased towards youth and Instagram and plastic surgery and a certain way of looking — that is not OK.
Q: In the book, you write about how you first photographed your mother nude while you were in college, after she’d had four children. But how did this particular project start?
A: I always photograph what I’m curious about. It doesn’t start as an intellectual thing. I’m getting older. What does the next stage look like? A photograph can give you access to something you don’t understand. You see it better. What does 60 look like? What does 70 look like? And what does it look like to be happy and sensual in a body of that age?
Q: You’ve been collected by museums at home and abroad — and this is your third book. Did you have any trouble finding a publisher?
A: It was hard to get this published. It’s hard to show it. I had an experience with a gallery owner — an internationally renowned curator. I showed him a picture and he instantly covered it up with his hand. Commercial galleries don’t want to show this. Nobody is going to buy it — and I’m not sure anyone is going to put this book on their coffee table. It’s a lot more taboo than we realize.
Q: I understand. I’m not sure how many of these pictures I can actually convince the paper to publish.
A: There’s a way in which women over a certain age feel invisible. For years, in your 20s and early 30s, you’re very visible when you don’t want to be. Then, all of a sudden, that stops. That’s all about the sexuality of young men. I don’t care about that, that’s just the way human nature is. What I care about is the assumption that bodies of a certain age are not sexual and sensual — because that isn’t true. This work doesn’t need to appeal to a randy 21-year-old guy. But what the culture needs to understand is that women in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, are sensual beings. They’re beautiful. That’s what I care about. I don’t care about catcalls. You’re not done when you’re 45. It’s not over — and no one gets to tell you it’s over.
“Sovereign” is available online from publisher Minor Matters.