Haus of Phag met with Lee to ask what it takes to have the eye to see beauty in the everyday, creating visual art simply by capturing a second in time. “I’m predictable,” he joked with me. “My partner, Brett, will sometimes see a reflection and point it out to me, because he knows I’ll want to photograph it.” He told me that some of his best photos had come about like this, stumbling across a moment of beauty that he captures on his iPhone, before retouching and tweaking it later. “For depth,” he said, “That’s the only reason I would tamper with the image. People have become so obsessed recently with perfection in an image, but I think it’s the imperfections that make it beautiful. Air-brushing and retouching has come so far it’s almost a genre of photography in its own right.”
I asked Lee what he would class as his signature style or image. He told me that his work is split into the “3 Ps” – people, performance and place. The latter is often a study from the window of his flat, having moved onto a high floor in Ancoats with views back over the city. “I take multiple photos from my window each week,” he said, “if only because of how different the weather can make the city look.” Recently, Manchester was shrouded in winter fog (a rare occurrence in this rainy city) and Lee took scores of images that made Manchester seem as eerie as it did romantic. But it’s the romance Lee finds in the urban sprawl that makes his work so special – his portfolio is a love letter to the region - not in picture-postcard glorifications of the glass-and-chrome transformation of the post-industrial North; he finds beauty in the minutiae; graffiti, traffic, puddles, concrete. And in his high-rise flat, it seems fitting that Lee can look godlike across the city, bird’s-eye viewing the serene bigger picture, when down below the city life is so frantic.
Drag and Queer performance has long been one of Lee’s primary subjects though. A close friend of David Hoyle, Lee often travels with the avant-garde cabaret performance artist, sometimes finding himself in unusual international locations. “The most interesting experience was probably in Zagreb,” Lee told me, “where David had been participating in a Queer Arts festival. He was interviewed by the local news station, probably the Croatian equivalent of North West Tonight, and they didn’t know what to make of him. They loved him, but they were wide-eyed and amazed, having clearly never encountered anybody like him before.” And where has photography taken Lee that’s left him the most wide-eyed and amazed? “When I shot the pornstar/director Ashley Ryder when he was visiting Manchester for Pride,” he laughed. “He just took me to his hotel room, took his clothes off, I shot him for fifteen minutes and then it was done. He was so professional and efficient about it!”
Though Lee’s work is often saturated in the bravado and glamour of performance, it’s the normalcy of his photographs that make them so accessible. They’re not polished or unrecognisable, using tricks of the light or his equipment to distance us from what he sees. His photographs show us Manchester and its Scene in 2014 – alive, breathing and dragged up to the nines. Like fellow Mancunian L.S. Lowry, whom Lee cites as a visible influence on his work “despite his unpopularity”, he sees the city he is documenting as the property of its people. For someone like Lee, who seems always on the lookout, waiting for beauty to rear its coiffed, rouged or reflected head, I can’t help but wonder how he can bear to live so high up, seeing so much of the city at once without it driving him mad. Because behind every illuminated window for mile upon built-up mile, there are people, performances and places just waiting for their beauty to be captured through the lens of someone who can find it.