“The emotion is in the eyes,” explains Lee Jeffries, whose empathetic portraits of homeless people touch every observer. In an interview with Hahnemühle, the humanist photographer explains why his large-format portraits on the new Photo Rag® Metallic are so haunting.
How did you ‘discover’ your passion for photography?
I’m a self-taught photographer who started out taking pictures of stock in a bike shop. My epiphany came in April 2008 when, on the eve of running the London Marathon, I snatched a long-lens image of a homeless girl huddling in a doorway, and felt compelled to apologise to her when she called me out for it. The resulting conversation changed not only my approach to photography; it changed my life.
During this time, I went to Rome to get a rosary blessed at the Vatican for a friend’s dying mother; she’s now buried with it. It was probably the first entirely selfless act of my life and something I was driven to do. That experience had a huge effect on the way I viewed people, images, photography. I took pieces of that experience, and it informs everything I’ve become, both artistically and as a man. Feeling love on a completely different level, ultimately, led to extended periods of loneliness. I began to go out onto the streets to seek refuge from it. When I meet homeless people, I can recognise that same loneliness in somebody’s eyes, and that becomes the starting point for the relationship. Throughout my career I have been on a mission to raise awareness of – and funds for – the homeless. My work features street people from the UK, Europe and the US whom I get to know by living rough with them, the relationship between them enabling me to capture a searing intimacy and authenticity in my portraits. My images become the final piece of that journey. The act of saying goodbye.
Whats your favorite genre?
I’m a portrait photographer first and foremost. Whilst you will find a few wider shots in my portfolio, what I do, is create relationships with people. My images are simply a document of that emotional journey.
Which of your projects/motifs opened the door to the art market/professional market?
My images have always been the end point of a long emotional journey. I do what I do for my own personal reasons, an antidote to my own sense of loneliness I guess. That loneliness continues to motivate my artistry to this day. That said, it soon became evident that the power of what I was producing had the ability to impact other people in the most human of ways. People could feel the authenticity of the images as well as their metaphysical elements and spirituality. The images were creating their own market. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, people want to feel……and my images are beautifully tactile in that respect.
How would you describe your personal style in photography?
That first trip to Rome has had a huge influence on my style. I remember running through the corridors of Vatican in tears to get to the shop to buy the Rosary. Absorbing the beautiful Roman sculptures and incredibly enchanting Renaissance art has remained in my heart ever since. My images often portray a harsh reality but I hope my style reflects a beautiful sophistication, full of love.
How important is the printed presentation of your works of art for you?
Hugely. It’s what I live for. To see my images in print is incredibly gratifying. Without fail, I walk into the many exhibitions I have been lucky enough to have, with my jaw on the floor. When your own images, that you’ve seen many times, can still do that to you then you know they are something special. I’ll often stand in a corner and watch the reactions of others to the work too. Amazing to witness the amazement. We live in a digital age, but nothing replaces feeling a printed image, right there, in front of you.
Which is your favorite Hahnemühle paper and why?
I use Photo Rag® Ultra Smooth, Photo Rag® Bright White and the new Photo Rag® Metallic. Each paper gives me and my customers something different. For example, the Photo Rag® Bright White produces a lovely matt finish for my images but it’s in the blacks that the paper propels the photograph to the next level. They print with an incredible “lightness” that appears, visually, so lush and velvety. I love that sophistication. The Photo Rag® Metallic excels in the highlights however. The shimmering of the whites in my black and white photographs is jaw- drop amazing!!!
Are you printing on Hahnemühle papers for exhibitions and/or collectors? What feedback do you get on the paper?
I recently switched all the production of my large format black and white prints for exhibitions and collectors from Photo Rag® Bright White to Photo Rag® Metallic and rely with my bigger formats to a Hahnemühle Certified Studio, Klein Imaging, in Manchester. They do a great job and the feedback I was getting was unanimous. Hollywood actors Josh Brolin and Channing Tatum, each of which have bought a piece from me and they love the “wow” factor. They love the robustness of the paper……and they really love its archival and longevity properties, crucial for limited edition prints.
What are you currently working on?
I recently finished a Kickstarter campaign for my first self-published book entitled „Lee Jeffries: Portraits“. It’s a 240-page hardcover coffee table book – not only containing portraits but selective antidotes and stories of the emotions and lives of the people I have met. The foreword and introduction had been written by Josh Brolin who is a huge fan of my work. The book is now available for Christmas 2019.
This is incredible!