At the age of 10, Lee Whittaker was gifted his grandma’s point and shoot camera so that he could take pictures of his friends skateboarding. “I think that was the starting point and everything else has been built from there,” the South West-raised and London-based photographer tells It’s Nice That. Now, Lee’s work has been published in AnOther, AnotherMan, Beauty Papers, Vogue and Office, and he has developed a style that effortlessly flits between fashion and documentary photography, fuelled with a cinematic brilliance and clean aesthetic.
Lee’s upbringing was a key player in the making of his career in photography. “At first, I was taking pictures unaware of it being a creative process,” he says. “It was a very honest experience of documenting the fun we had; it wasn’t until much later that I saw it as a serious creative output for ideas.” Raised in a small town in-between Bristol and Bath, Lee’s honest approach to picture-making seems to alleviate his work from any photographic constraints – in terms of adhering to trends or fitting into a specific style. “I feel like I’m always trying to push it and try different things,” he says, “especially darkroom techniques.” Yet, as with many photographers or creatives working towards a visual language, he did start to notice a few reoccurring traits throughout his series’ – such as “weird or boring still lifes”, splashes of colour in “mundane scenes” or people wearing speed dealers (those wrap-around 90’s-style sunglasses).
Despite being the “shy type” and a “loner of times”, Lee admits that he does quite enjoy the people projects that bring him out of his comfort zone and into a new land visceral land. Particularly drawn towards the celebration of people, culture and the ways in which they place themselves in the world, Lee finds himself drawn towards those that open up a distinctive dialogue. An example of this can be seen in his recent project centred around Japanese country music, which is “probably the most stand out of them all”. As part of a Japan travel issue for Muse magazine, Lee spent 10 days travelling around and shooting in country bars and at a festival – this was also his first time in Japan. “I had emailed a couple of country artists before leaving, but I had heard nothing back and so on arrival the entire project was a real shot in the dark – thankfully they were super welcoming and more than happy for me to hand out and take pictures,” he says. “Taking into account the language barrier, it was one of the easiest and most pleasurable projects I have shot.”
Another project sees Lee’s infatuation with small islands come to fruition. His stylist and friend, Lee Trigg, grew up in Vancouver island and it “seemed right” to go and shoot with her mum. Together, they ventured on a road trip, picked up clothes from thrift stores and stopped at various locations along the way, capturing his subject in an abundance of spontaneous glory. Further afield, Lee fulfilled his desire to shoot the Australian rodeos – having developed a fascination with cowboys and roads from his trip around Texas. As a commission for AnotherMan, he comments that it was “really one of the only times I felt I didn’t really connect to my subjects – it was difficult to progress past the distant wall they put up, almost like they were suffering from PTSD.” Although these images are infused with a soft haze and romantic sunlight, he adds: “it was really quite different in person”.
All-in-all, Lee’s work is tremendously personal. His ability to capture his subjects with warmth and honesty is something that cannot be beckoned with – unfiltered, raw and accentuated, each shot gives a hint into a subtle narrative that lays beneath. “I would say that the [most exciting] experience that photography enables, is becoming interested in different cultures or ways of life,” Lee concludes, “as well as travelling and getting to become a local for a short time – really diving deep and learning about people and subcultures.”
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