Jocelyn Lee didn’t want to throw the flowers from her October wedding in the trash—the ranunculus were too gorgeous for that—so she put them in a tub of water in her backyard, not thinking about the temperature. They froze overnight then defrosted, changing shape and texture, turning, Lee remembers, into “something super beautiful and strange—part laboratory and part surreal science experiment.” “This is a subject,” she realized.
Later, Lee started different tubs with her husband’s sunflowers, seaweed from the nearby beach, blossoms from her property’s dogwood, apple, and pear trees, and even a pomegranate. By day, the tub’s water reflected the sky and also revealed subterranean layers, the pooled and exquisitely colored vegetative matter becoming increasingly complex.
Jocelyn Lee is not a still-life photographer. The work that has brought her recognition from the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as inclusion in major art museums and exhibitions at galleries stateside and in Europe, has always been portraits, often nudes, and frequently nudes in the natural world. Sometimes those nudes—draped on moss in a forest, hair tied to a tree, or even visually merging with the surrounding vegetation—suggest landscapes. But still life? No, that was something new.
And yet, Lee’s backyard project clearly paralleled her portrait practice at the time. In 2015, when she married for a second time, she had been photographing female nudes over the age of fifty-five, often—though not exclusively—in or near water.