Jason Lee’s careers in skateboarding and acting pave the way for a distinct vision of the American road as it unravels (and decays) across Oklahoma.
You're likely familiar with Jason Lee from film and television projects such as MallRats, My Name is Earl, and The Incredibles. Prior to his acting career, Lee made a name for himself as a pro-skateboarder traveling internationally in the 80’s and 90’s, and co-founding Stereo Skateboards which is still in operation today. It’s now been more than fifteen years since Lee acquired a serious interest in photography, picking up tips on set from the crew. Despite having his first museum solo on the horizon, Lee’s already covered a lot of miles from several exhibitions, sold out photo books and a growing online presence.
Opening in June, OK: Jason Lee Photographs, commissioned by the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa is an exhibition featuring more than 150 photographs Lee made on road trips throughout Oklahoma last year.
I first became familiar with Lee’s photographic work a year or two ago while getting film developed from my own road trip project. In an indie photo lab tucked away in the basement of an urban arts commune, I maneuvered through piles of vintage cameras and beaded curtains of film strips clipped up to dry. The Owner/Polaroid-Savant, Nolan Rogers, snapped a picture of me and talked at length about his experiments with expired chemistry. During demonstrations he mentioned making polaroids on a road trip he had taken with Jason Lee. I didn’t recognize the name within the context of photography and immediately looked up Lee’s work after leaving. While fascinated by the idea of multiplicity and creative transformation, what most piqued my interest was our brief overlap in timing and locations, yet our projects otherwise appeared nothing alike.
A deadpan aesthetic comes across immediately. In a press release from the Philbrook, the word “cinematic” was also used to describe some of Lee’s work. But if you look longer, pay attention to repeated use of a vertical line, often fragmenting a composition into two distinct parts. Whether this is a subconscious stake of claim, self-portrait, or sheer coincidence, I don’t know, but a deeper analysis reveals sinewy connections often sagging across the frame at similar angles.
My theories push further, but I’ll leave it at that. In some of our back-and-forth, Lee made it clear that he has no interest in categorizations the art world may latently bestow upon him. He finds an aversion to this type of background noise and prefers to keep focus on what drives him most; photography and the making of images. Lee is immensely passionate about this work.
Jason Lee in conversation with Amy Parrish
Amy Parrish: You've got quite a range of passions and projects. Do your interests all process inside of you at a single point in time, or do you go through phases when one project pulls into the lead? What excites you?
Jason Lee: I remain consistently intrigued by this America. And it’s the landscape that drives me more than anything else. I don’t really think in terms of projects or themes as much as I just simply go out and make pictures. It’s a very spontaneous activity. Being on the road, or anywhere with a camera, really, is always exciting. The spontaneity of it all.
Parrish: From what I understand, you work entirely on film and have launched Film Photographic as an online community for film shooters. Can you explain why this a preferred method for you?
Lee: Film is all I know. Its density and inherit ability to create sense of separation between the viewer and the subject is unparalleled. And I believe photography works best when sense of distance is present, registrable. With film, it seems we’re looking into something; with digital, it seems we’re looking at something. But whatever works for whomever. I just like film and prefer its organic qualities and feel that it’s ultimately more impactful. Not to mention it’s archival, whereas digital is not. (I’ve had hard drives with film scan files on them crash on me but the film itself is still there and always will be).
Parrish: And, how important is the camera or gear in your work? In your blog posts there is a noticeable amount of attention placed on the camera, lens, film type, and even processing notes. You have one post about metering, for example, which almost reads as a creative and intellectual feat. What is it about these that affect how you see and document in the world?
Lee: I have my days when I carry around a little point-and-shoot camera and days of using 4x5. I bounce around. But knowing your gear is of course important. I tend to use older lenses and expired films. I like softer and more muted and not so ‘quite perfect’ renderings. Of course you want to do justice to the natural scene, but I find that having a more subdued palette keeps everything a bit relaxed and less hyper-real and therefore not invasive.
Parrish: How or where have you learned the most?
Lee: Being an actor has allowed me to pick the brains of directors of photography and cameramen over the years. One of my first purchases back in 2002 when I first started getting seriously interested in film was a Bolex 16mm camera and a light meter. I would then go on to do a great deal of experimenting and learning and note-taking. Trial and error is present still, as it should be, and that’s a good portion of the pleasure of the medium.
Parrish: Speaking of pleasure, in the deadpan aesthetic, images feel void of emotion (or one might say it creates its own, hollow emotion). What are you seeing/thinking/feeling while creating these images? What is it you aim to say/show/reveal/describe?
Lee: It really is a ‘feel’ thing. Of course you’re drawn by sight to something, but it’s a very distinct feeling, an almost indescribable one, that makes you stop and photograph. The only thing I guess I’d be trying to ‘reveal’ is the reality of what lay around us and how it lay. It’s not a very heady thing for me; going out and making photos is in itself a big draw.
Parrish: While you’re making photos, you’ve mentioned doing so from the passenger seat. How does viewing the world through a car window affect what you see? Is the car protection? A disguise? Or is that physical separation from the scene before you necessary to impart a distanced aesthetic?
Lee: Honestly, it’s easier. When I’m using the 4x5 and 8x10 cameras of course I’m always away from the car and using a tripod, but when slowly roaming town neighborhoods, with capturing structures in mind, as was the case for a portion of the OK series, it’s very convenient to stop, aim and capture and drive on. And from the car, everything is framed relatively the same for good consistency in perspective.
Parrish: I’m going to pull out a question Jon Feinstein recently asked here on the site. I couldn't word it any better than he already has: “How do you see this work fitting into, riffing on, moving forward, pushing against, being in conversation with, etc the legacy of American road trip photography?
Lee: I think anyone interested in such views is adding to the conversation, so to speak. The fact that I can and have come across many American scenes that resemble what we see in William Christenberry’s photographs from decades ago is both interesting and exciting to me. And Walker Evans before him. It reminds us that America has been falling a part and outgrowing itself for many years. I see my own versions of what they saw before me. Just as Evans and Christenberry we’re drawn to environmental contradictions, so am I.
I’m simply adding my own pages to the greater, ongoing story. Personally I find it interesting when a photographer finds a similar scene in the Midwest, for example, to a scene captured in, say, California. It creates a thread; additional pieces of the puzzle. It’s a variety of views from a variety of photographers of a social landscape that we all share, past, present, and, apparently, future.
Parrish: That’s so true. You have an image of a building with a CocaCola sign which immediately struck a familiar chord…like something I might stumble upon back home in rural Ohio. So, what’s next?
Lee: After the Tulsa exhibition opening it’ll be straight to work on the Oklahoma series book, which will feature a great deal more pieces than will be seen at the museum. Hoping for a December 2019 release.
Parrish: You've clearly got a lot on your plate. I’ll wrap this up with one last question. If there is one thing you want people to know or understand about this work, what would that be?
Lee: Nothing, really. If a photograph makes sense to them for some reason or another, great. If it means nothing to them, all the same. This is simply what I enjoy photographing. I find these scenes interesting and maybe others do too.
OK: Jason Lee Photographs opens June 1, 2019 at the Philbrook Museum in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Find out more at jasonleefilm.com Follow along on Instagram at @jasonlee, @stereoskateboards, @thefolkloreproject and @filmphotographic