Universe Of: Willis F. Lee

Santafe.com | THE magazine - February 6, 2013

"Although all cameras lie, depending on the degree of the user's intent, there is still nothing stranger, or more beautiful, or more wondrous than the truth"

Since Willis F. Lee’s photographic career began, in 1971, his work has been included in more than 100 exhibitions, and is in the collections of many museums and individual collectors. Lee is known for his copperplate photogravure and largescale photography. Of his floral work, James Enyeart wrote: “Lee’s prints join a rich tradition in the arts, which has for centuries explored the vitality and sensuousness of floral objects. From elegant, stylized carvings of lotus blossoms in ancient Egypt and Persia, to twentieth-century artists like Edward Steichen, Imogen Cunningham and Georgia O’Keeffe, floral subjects form a continuum of aesthetic expression. Like those before him, Willis Lee has allowed his chosen medium to make its special imprint on that tradition.”

On Photography

We are constantly being visually bombarded through advertising, the Web, television, films, and social media. The innocence and intimacy of photography has been diluted due to the democratization of image making and the unlimited selection of electronic options to render an image into subjectivity with the press of a button on an iPhone. “Hyper memories” leave little to the imagination. I believe that the public is becoming synthesized to the virtual, which, because of the volume of information, causes one to glance instead of looking closely. We have come to expect the hyper-real, visual perfection in the print medium—the drawback being that if everything is perfect then nothing is special. With today’s technology anyone can take a picture, but there are fewer photographers that make a photograph than a decade ago. That said, I see a lot of new work that is produced traditionally and digitally that is visually compelling. I am always inspired by and in awe of other photographers’ work.


As a kid growing up in the 1950s I fell in love with motion pictures and was especially attracted to films by John Houston, Howard Hawks and John Ford. I watched these films on a little black-and-white TV screen in a large cabinet with all the knobs and controls on the TV. I didn’t know it then but I was drawn to these films by the stark lighting and deep textured shadows, the otherworldliness that represented the film noir period. I felt this imagery to be both beautiful and mysterious. I began to notice the same influence in the play of light and texture in all things organic. I wanted to get closer to it all and wanted everyone to experience the same feeling, fascination, wonder, and beauty that I did. This is what I still try to manifest through my work—seeing for the first time—being as naive as a child.


Although all cameras lie, depending on the degree of the user’s intent, there is still nothing stranger, or more beautiful, or more wondrous than the truth. In the visual arts, truth and beauty have prevailed for thousands of years. I like to produce images of truth to the best of my ability, documenting the beauty in form and light in its ambient setting. I like to bend the truth to create an atmosphere or convey an emotion, but when the shutter is released and the film is exposed it is still a true documentation of the object in the moment.


Although I have embraced all the technological advances in image making during the last fifteen years, I am still a film-based photographer and use traditional film cameras in formats up to eight by 10 inches. I only produce a limited number of pieces using digital capture, one of which is on the cover of this issue of THE magazine. The image is from an experimental series I did in the mid-1990s using a four-by-five digital back in my Sinar studio camera. I revisited these pieces recently and found them to be exceptional in color fidelity and smoothness. Most of my work is printed as silver prints or copperplate photogravure. Gravure etchings are my true love and I have a small reserve of extinct traditional materials to produce a few more bodies of work.