A Conversation With Phoebe Lee

First off I should apologise for not posting for a while. With the stress of moving house, being overworked and a generally busy social calendar I just haven’t found the time! Hopefully that’ll change from here on in, especially as winter approaches and shooting gets harder – you already know I’m a fair weather photographer!

Anyway, onto something new. I’m going to start asking other photographers to join me in conversation about our work and see where it takes us. I don’t know about you, but personally I get a lot of joy from talking to other photographers, learning about what it is that makes them tick and I always find I learn something that I can take away from the conversation. I do this with my photography buddies anyway, so I figured I might as well post the conversations and hopefully you can also get some benefit from it. I’ve kept it pretty informal, because I want this series to be more conversational rather than a straight up interview.

The first photographer I approached was Phoebe Lee (Instagram: @shabberdoo) and she was kind enough to agree to take part. I’ve admired her photography for some time, so thought it would be worth striking up a conversation. Here’s how it went.

Self Portrait, Phoebe Lee

Self Portrait, Phoebe Lee

Hi Phoebe, thanks for giving up some of your time to do this. First off, where are you based? 

I’m based in Toronto, Canada. I shoot mostly in Toronto, but love any chance i get to shoot elsewhere. I was able to go to Pittsburgh this year, and also took some pictures in and around Orillia Ontario.

I’d love to go to Pittsburgh. One of my favourite books/movies of all time, ‘Wonderboys’ by Michael Chabon, was set there and the look of the place really appealed to me photographically. How did you find shooting in a new place, I find I take better photos in places I know well rather than when I go away on holiday. Do you find it a challenge shooting somewhere new?

Pittsburgh, Phoebe Lee

Pittsburgh, Phoebe Lee

It’s funny because I feel like it’s way easier to shoot in new places. I feel as though I have shot all I can here in Toronto and it certainly is a challenge finding new ways to look at a city. Travelling somewhere new is so easy because it’s like stimulus overload. There’s so many things to take pictures of, and everything is fresh and exciting and being seen for the first time. It’s very invigorating and less taxing on the brain I guess.

I think you’d love Pittsburgh. It’s a really beautiful city. I love getting the chance to see new places. So would you say home is your favorite place to shoot then? How do you combat visual fatigue?

Saying whether home is my favourite place to shoot or not is hard really. Because, sometimes I’m bored of it and sometimes I think it’s great. Chester is a small city and only really has four main streets in the town centre so it can feel frustratingly small. I’ve been branching out into the suburbs but there is less stuff going on there so that’s not easy either. I guess some days are just better than others you know. I definitely feel my best work is made at home because I can look past all the obvious stuff and see the little details. When I go somewhere new it’s like a sensory overload and it’s too tempting to shoot the obvious stuff like tourist attractions. Wherever I shoot though I always end up coming away with something I like. If I get one decent shot in a day then I’m happy.

So do you go out purposely to take photographs or is it something you do just as part of your daily routine?

At first it was part of my daily routine. I walk a lot. I’m constantly on foot, so I make sure to have my camera with me at all times. Lately I have been trying to devote an  entire day to just shooting. My friend and I would pick an area and then walk around for an afternoon.

How would you describe your photography?

That’s a tough one. I like how you consider yourself a documentary photographer but I don’t ever know if I would, because even though I am documenting things as I see them or as part of my routine, my photos are skewed and not accurate representations I guess. I guess I never really thought about it.  Good question. I’m gonna stew on that. What do you think?

I’d say you definitely fall into the documentary category, you’re documenting the places you go and the things you see. I think as photographers we’re always skewing the way the world is because we take the photos that appeal to us. At the end of the day we’re humans and we’re all different. I don’t think documentary photography has to be like impersonal or sterile. It’s about how you view the world, I think when you click the shutter you’re putting your own personality into your work.

How did you get into photography?

I’ve always loved photography.  I wanted to be a photographer when i was a kid.  My parents bought me a camera when I was in high school and i used to take pictures quite a bit.  I took a few photography classes in university (the first time around)  but then pretty much stopped doing anything until a few years ago, when I decided to try and take 1 photo every day as a New Year’s resolution.  Kind of like a photo diary and then it just spiraled from there.

Frozen Bunny, Phoebe Lee

Frozen Bunny, Phoebe Lee

So how come you didn’t end up becoming a full-time photographer then? Like for me, I’m an engineer, so it has creative aspects but it doesn’t have the freedom of photography. I personally think I wouldn’t enjoy the constraints of being a working photographer and that it would take all the fun out of it. How do you feel about that?

I think I would agree with that. I like a creative outlet but it’s very difficult to make a living as a photographer and being true to yourself. I dunno if I’m good enough to be pro (and with instagram basically everyone is a photographer) so competition is insane. Also I’m not good at compromising so to shoot weddings or stuff I don’t care about would be kind of a bummer.

I actually like that you’re an engineer. It’s interesting because I feel like you have to be precise and careful coming from a background like that and you can express yourself through photography and make it more personal. It’s good to have balance. I like that you have different aspects of your photography process, due to your science “logical” brain haha. I like that you still have a need for creativity. Because science is relatively new to me, I like that it causes me to think about things differently, from an art perspective, which ultimately is better because you can see things in different ways. It’s really important to have that duality, I think.

I actually bounced around jobs quite a bit. I recently went back to school for nutrition and am starting my masters in nutrition communication this fall, which I am super excited about. I think the days of being a struggling artist are finally over haha and I want to get on with it. But I will always love photography. Plus isn’t it better to have a hobby you love? That way you can leave it or take a break from it if you need to.

Clock, Phoebe Lee

Clock, Phoebe Lee

You mentioned that you tried to do a ‘one photo per day’ challenge to keep a visual diary. Essentially my Endless Proof project is a photo diary, but I’ve never managed to get down to just one photo per day. I once tried to edit a year of photos down to one photo a day but found it really hard because some days you get a few really great photos and other days you get none. I was pretty cutthroat with my editing and actually ended up with 175 shots rather than the 365 I was aiming for! Since then I’ve found it quite uplifting to be really ruthless with which photos to keep or delete but I find I can’t stick to anything too rigorous rules wise. I’d rather have a gap in the diary than a crappy photo if you know what I mean. How did you find the experience? Did you manage to stick to the rules for the whole year?

I don’t really like rules or rigidity either, and just cheat a bit. Sometimes I’ll take 5 photos and other days none, so it kind of balances out. Hahah I don’t like to force it, because then I end up with stuff I’m not happy with, like you said. But I think the important thing is making sure it becomes a routine, training your eyes to see things you may not have noticed before. Then it kinda becomes second nature, hopefully.  I’m basically still doing that. I basically post what I feel and if I delete it later, that’s ok too. It’s reflective of how I’m feeling at the moment and of the day, so it doesn’t have to be an amazing photo. And if I change my mind I’ll just get rid of it.

What medium do you use? Film/digital?  

For convenience’s sake, I shoot a lot of digital, on my phone, just because it’s easy and I always have it on me. More recently, I have started to carry around a point and shoot, but I need to remember to pull it out sometimes haha. If I’m shooting somewhere for a day or if I know I’ll be walking around, I bring my manual focus film camera. I honestly like both mediums, so it doesn’t matter to me if it’s film or digital. A good picture is a good picture. It’s like comparing CDs to vinyl, both of which are fine, under certain circumstances.

Sweat Tops, Phoebe Lee

Sweat Tops, Phoebe Lee

I’m with you on that, I think photographers in general get too caught up in the toys and can become too focussed on the tools rather than the results (myself included, it’s a constant battle!). Your photos look quite filmic to me, so I’m surprised to hear you shoot mostly on your phone. I’m also surprised how consistent your images look considering you are switching between cameras and from film to digital a lot. I’m really anal about maintaining a consistent look, which is one of the reasons I got really angry when my last camera broke because getting a new one would change how my images looked. Is that something that bugs you? I have photography friends that complain about the same thing but when I see their images I don’t see much change between cameras/mediums, so I’m wondering whether it’s just something that’s in my head.

That definitely doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t care either way, although I have been shooting lots of film lately. I do like the softness of it. But the joy is in getting a good shot no matter what. I actually like to switch cameras because they do give me all different looks and I can adjust depth of field and stuff on certain ones, which changes how I shoot sometimes.

Closed, Phoebe Lee

Closed, Phoebe Lee

I dunno if this ever happens to you, but in the beginning I was taking different pictures depending on what camera. It was weird actually. I think it was just a comfort thing mostly and also a self conscious thing. I don’t really like to draw attention to myself when shooting and I find sometimes people notice more with a camera than a phone. Also I really don’t like to be pinned down. I think maybe because I’m a Gemini but I really want all my stuff to be different. I’d rather not be repetitive or have a certain noticeable style – except I really love shooting bathrooms and laundromats. Hahaha I can’t help it. Is there anything you love shooting all the time? Over and over again?

Shop windows and things behind glass. I have no idea why. I delete a lot of them because I think I have too many but I still do it, just in case I get something better than what I’ve shot before. I guess you just form habits like that.

Since you shoot mostly on your phone do you also use your phone to post-process your images? If so what are your favourite tools/apps to use?

I try not to mess with the pictures very much. I’ll do some correcting if it’s too dark or whatever, but for the most part I like to leave things as they were captured. Sometimes I’ll use snapseed, if i remember, but mostly instagram controls because I can’t be assed to use anything due to sheer laziness.

Tropical Laundry, Phoebe Lee

Tropical Laundry, Phoebe Lee

Why do you make photographs? What is your aim?

I guess mostly to practice and to help me notice things that maybe most people wouldn’t. I like that idea of finding humour or beauty in things that others may not have seen, or to highlight something that was hidden. It’s like discovering secrets. I also really just love the idea of capturing a feeling or a memory. But honestly, sometimes I feel like I lose sight of all that, and sometimes I feel like I may have lost what I was trying to do before. It’s weird to see how your focus changes over the years, or how you are influenced by other people.  Sometimes it’s good and sometimes I’m not sure. I don’t want to take the same pictures over again or take pictures that others have already done.

Yeah, I agree. I’ll often stumble across an instagram profile and spot a very similar photo to one I’ve taken myself in the past and I find it annoys me (haha). I try to make myself think that my photos are my photos and they are important to me and that it doesn’t matter what other people are doing with their work. I think all photographers suffer with that self-doubt from time to time. What do you mean when you say you lose sight of what you’re trying to do?

I guess I mean not being too influenced by others. Through what they ” like” on my page (which is being safe) or purely through constant exposure to people’s feeds. I agree that I get annoyed too when I see a similar photo but then there’s a reason we are all drawn together I guess? Double edged sword.

Bathroom, Phoebe Lee

Bathroom, Phoebe Lee

Yeah, I suppose that’s true enough. I actively seek out people who have a similar style to me so I guess you’re right.

I just want to see new things that I have never thought of before and I want to be inspired but at the same time I am drawn to people whose aesthetics are similar. So I’m not really sure how to fix that or get over it. Does that make sense? It’s like, how do you stay “pure” and make stuff that feels new? Maybe you have to cut yourself off from others. I don’t know.

Yeah, I keep saying I’m going to take a break from instagram but I think I am addicted to it so it’s hard. Seeing other people’s work sometimes helps me get out of a rut. How do you get over creative block?

Sometimes I get into huge ruts, and yet somehow I keep slogging away. I guess still trying to get in the habit. Going to a new place to take pictures definitely helps. And I guess going to art galleries helps too. And movies. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear how you handle it. My biggest fret is being stagnant. I think experimenting is key. Even if you go back to what you know and are comfortable with, at least you tried something new. Get the brain out of autopilot.

Alteration, Phoebe Lee

Alteration, Phoebe Lee

If I get in a rut, I normally reach for Stephen Shore’s ‘American Surfaces’ because that’s the book that’s most inspired me in my work. I think sometimes I just have to reset my brain back to its original intention and after that I’m fine.

What do you do with your photos after you’ve taken them? Do you make books or prints? What is the end game?

Honestly they’re all in my computer. I make prints to trade people or sell if they’re interested. I think about putting out a zine but I’m not sure what I want the subject to be yet. I’m not great with layout and putting stuff together cohesively. A zine would be cool but there is no endgame. It’s really just so I don’t go crazy haha.

I shoot in colour because it seems more ‘real’ and helps me remember the details of what I’m seeing. Some of my favourite photographers shoot in black and white and I keep toying with the idea of shooting a whole year in black and white but every time I try it I give up after a couple of days because I just end up feeling that it’s just not me. What are your thoughts on it? You seem to shoot exclusively in colour as well, was that a conscious decision for you? Did you ever experiment with black and white?

Definitely a conscious decision.  I don’t really care for black and white. I had a brief flirtation with it in high school but ever since then I’ve shot only in colour. I don’t know if what it is. I agree with you about it being real. But also I think it just tells a better story. With black and white the lack of colour is already associated with a certain look I guess, or a nostalgia maybe, but colour is so much more vivid and interesting to me. It holds my attention more. Sometimes when I see black and white photos, I’m like “ugh, that would be so good in colour” haha.

Billboard, Phoebe Lee

Billboard, Phoebe Lee

Who inspires you/what inspires you?

Instagram is great because there is so much awesome stuff out there. I’m inspired by lots of people’s galleries, amateur and professional. Photographers like Lynne Cohen, Larry Sultan and Saul Leiter (but there are so many more!) I also really love movies as inspiration. The imagery in the movie Paris, Texas is probably what I wish my stuff looked like haha, that’s  definitely an inspiration as well as the movie “Blue Ruin” which was really beautifully shot.

I’m also inspired by art – mostly paintings, music and people that I know. I am fortunate enough to know lots of very creative people and that helps push me to not be such a slacker  haha.

I’m unhealthily obsessed with how my images look, and it sounds like the look of your images is important to you to. How important is the aesthetic to you, and how long did it take you to perfect it?

Actually, it’s not that important. I view it all as a learning experience. I do feel though that I’m getting better at picturing how something will look when I’m taking the photo as opposed to it being pretty different. I’m cropping less (not at all with film). Sometimes I’ll share things I’m not sure about and I may delete it later. For me, it’s really about the mood I’m in. Also, I don’t know if this happens to you, but I try to go back and look at my photos because sometimes I’ll really love an image and be bored of it later and other times, I’ll discover something I like in an old one that I may not have cared about before. I don’t know if it’s because I’m fickle, or a gemini. Either way, I go by feeling more than how it looks, if that makes sense? Like some photos aren’t quite right, and I don’t know why but then I may go back to them way later and be like, “yes, I’m glad I didn’t give up on it”.

Beach, Phoebe Lee

Beach, Phoebe Lee

I’m open to all aesthetics, and even just looking at stuff I shot a few years ago, I feel like that it’s constantly changing and evolving. So, to take the super long way to answer your question, I definitely haven’t perfected anything. It’s ongoing. Plus, I guess it depends on what is influencing me at the time. Do you feel like you have a definite style that you are happy to stick with?

The more I shoot the more wide ranging and eclectic my style gets actually. I’m still not sure whether that’s a good thing or not. I generally like to keep things pretty consistent. At the end of each year I edit and sequence my best photos into a book and delete the rest. At the start of the process I think that there’s no clear flow or cohesive style there, but when I’m done I’m usually happy. I think it’s a case of less is more, if you know what I mean.

The documentarian in me sometimes worries that by shooting film, or making digital photos look like they were shot on film that I’m trying to inject nostalgia into my images and it makes them look older than they really are and that future viewers won’t be able to put them in a time and place. Is this something you have thought about. Any thoughts?

Hmmm, actually nope haha. That doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, that sounds nice. Who wouldn’t want photos to have a timeless quality to them? Although having said that, I do love seeing old photos and the clothing and hairstyles from other eras. It’s so great.

Yeah, I love looking at old photos too. I guess the value of photographs only increases with age, so I guess it’s just a waiting game haha.

Pick three favourite photos and explain the story behind them.

I picked this one because it makes me laugh and reminds me of good times with friends at the cottage. It’s quite recent. From a few weeks ago, actually.  I like that I just stumbled upon the towel drying there and it was one of those funny moments where you’re surprised at what you find.

Towel, Phoebe Lee

Towel, Phoebe Lee

I like this one again, because it makes me laugh. I feel like it’s dated because the decor is so old and yet this is a current picture. I was having dinner with my mom and spotted this perfect scene. It is probably most representative of my style. It has the presence of people and yet is devoid of them. Also it looks staged to me which is what I like. I like rooms and spaces that have character.

Restaurant, Phoebe Lee

Restaurant, Phoebe Lee

Last, is a picture of my friend Greg. He’s the person I’ll shoot the most actually. He’s very willing to model for me. I like that the tones just are really soft and I like the cropping. I’m very fond of this picture maybe because it’s not “me”. This was up at a cottage as well. He was my saviour haha. A good friend that helps get you through bad times. I like this picture because it tells a story. I like ambivalence a lot. Like you don’t know what’s going on and it could be good or bad.

Greg, Phoebe Lee

Greg, Phoebe Lee

The photos you share are, more often that not, devoid of people, why is that?

It’s funny, because when I paint, I often paint people and I hate painting rooms but I love photographing rooms. I really like the idea of spaces that were occupied by people and have their presence but don’t actually have people in them, because there’s a sadness or thoughtfulness to it, like you’re missing part of the story.

So do you not take any pictures of your friends and family at all?

I do sometimes. I guess I also want to have a universality to my pictures so by featuring people that mean something to me personally, I don’t know why anyone would care about them haha. I guess that’s not a very good reason. Who knows, in the future I might ONLY shoot people haha. Never say never, it’s just not a huge interest at this point.

I can appreciate your apprehension of shooting people, especially when it comes to people on the street. I’m pretty introverted and it took a lot of courage at first to start taking photos of strangers but I’ve found it really helped my confidence and improved my skills with getting the right composition when you only have a limited time before the moment is gone. When I shoot my friends I tend to rely on the fact that they’re going to tell me to stop if I get annoying haha. When it comes to the photos I do worry sometimes that I’m not making the subject look ‘pretty enough’, but I really don’t know how to make ‘pretty’ photos so I stick to what I know. Having said that all the feedback I’ve got from my friends is good and they don’t seem to mind that I share the pictures online – I’ve never asked for permission from them before I do it. I guess I’m one of those people that thinks it’s better to apologise than to get permission. Maybe that makes me heartless, I don’t know haha. I would always delete a photograph from instagram or my website if they didn’t like it. One of the big things for me is that I would regret not having pictures of friends and loved ones if something were to happen to them, so that’s why I do it.

Yeah, that’s totally fair. I don’t know. I used to want more documentation of friends and family so I wouldn’t forget but weirdly, I’m more okay with keeping it in my brain. I’m not sure what changed that for me. I do like the idea of courage and confidence though, as well as having a time limitation. All those things are big challenges that maybe one day I’ll get to. Baby steps  haha. It may sound cliched, but there’s this speech that George Clooney says in the movie “Up In The Air” about putting all your memories into a backpack in your mind or something (I’m heavily paraphrasing) that kinda makes me at peace with living with memories. Also, that book “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” has also helped me to let go a bit.

Carwash, Phoebe Lee

Carwash, Phoebe Lee

Well, you know there’s nothing wrong with not taking photos of people. There are no rules about what you should or shouldn’t photograph. I think it’s best to just go with your gut feeling and whatever works for you. Make the work that makes you happy.

I noticed your paintings on your website, and was meaning to ask you about that. I also look to other artistic mediums for inspiration; Edward Hopper and David Hockney being key influences for me. I can’t paint for shit though so I took the easy way out and picked up a camera haha. Do you think painting helps with your photography? Or do you find not having complete control over the composition frustrating? When I look back on my shots I often wish that certain people or objects were slightly to the left or right or closer or further away or whatever, but for me that’s the beauty of it – you have to work with what the world gives you, if you see what I mean?

I absolutely agree! I love that you have to work with what’s there. That’s the true challenge. Also I like that it’s then true documentation. Nothing has been moved or touched. It’s exactly as you found it. I also have no problems with control. I like going with the flow and being led into something. The idea of stumbling into something that’s temporary is very important to me. It’s what makes it fun. I hate being too serious. It’s only photography after all. Having a sense of humour is so important.

Chairs, Phoebe Lee

Chairs, Phoebe Lee

Also, I love Edward Hopper so much! His paintings are so inspiring. He totally has that sad lonely vibe that I sometimes think I have in my pictures. Also, I think for me painting and photos are very separate, and they don’t really inform each other, but maybe subconsciously they help me figure out composition.

Why do you feel the need to share your images?

Honestly for me it just is a daily exercise that I do right now. I put them out there with no expectations and then if people like them, that’s cool but if not, that’s cool too. I guess it’s allowing myself to be vulnerable and also it lets me take risks. I like to try different things or post a photo that isn’t typically what I would post and see what happens. I guess it’s also nice to get feedback from peers and people that I respect. It’s also very cool because sharing has led to some amazing opportunities, such as this nice interview. I’m also meeting awesome, like minded pals that I can learn from and be inspired by. I met this creative and friendly community that is very supportive and it’s been really great.

I always try to retain my own opinion of my own photos, but I find it difficult when a photo I thought was throwaway gets more likes than one that I thought was great. I often have to shake myself down and stick with my gut feeling rather than trusting the masses of instagram. It’s not that I don’t value people’s opinions, but speaking from my own experience of Instagram, sometimes it seems like it’s too easy to scroll through your feed and click that like button and maybe it doesn’t really mean anything at all. Like you could get more likes on one photo just because you posted it at a certain time of the day, like when people are waking up or whatever. Personally, I think it’s better to keep a small group of trusted friends to share photos with, whose opinion you really respect. Is that something you do? Do you ever find that the number of likes you get on a certain photo somehow changes your own viewpoint on it?

Omg yes, isn’t that weird? I’m finally at the stage where it doesn’t bother me. I wish it didn’t sooner. I just think it’s so weird, most of my favourite photos are the ones with the fewest likes. That’s the danger of instagram, right there, as it sometimes causes you to lose focus or your confidence or whatever and it shouldn’t. I’m finally able to fight that now.

Trees, Phoebe Lee

Trees, Phoebe Lee

I don’t really share my stuff with anyone else. None of my close friends are really into photography or really get my pictures. They all think I’m weird and are like “why are you taking a photo of nothing?” haha so I really only have me and my online peeps. Mostly my friends are used to stopping every 5 seconds while I take a picture, but I get worried I annoy them haha thats why I usually go out on my own. There are a number of people I consider my real friends on instagram, and I do value their opinions, but for the most part, I feel safer trusting my gut. Intuition is pretty important I think. You just have to have enough confidence to listen and trust yourself, because ultimately, you know yourself best.

I couldn’t have said it better myself! I’ll try to stick to that from now on! 

What three tips would you offer other like minded photographers? 

  1. I guess be true to yourself and trust yourself. Don’t pander to others. Be strong and confident in your photos and your vision.
  2. Don’t be too serious. It should be fun.
  3. Don’t be a douchebag. Be nice to people because there’s nothing to gain from being a snob or a snot, you know? Like, we should all support each other. There’s no competition. Just be nice and supportive and be open to new things.

As I like your work, who else should I follow on instagram?

I love @innerweather, @generaldrea, @kellygrahvm, @billykeihn, @joshua.huyser and @teameinzlkind. I think they are my go to’s, all awesome, all inspiring, all the time haha. Apologies if I left anyone out.

Where can people find your work?

I have a website that I should update more haha also I have an instagram also sometimes I post other people’s stuff and mine on tumblr. Basically, I’m most active on instagram. It’s updated the most frequently.

Thanks Phoebe! Talk to you soon!

If you would like to be considered for an interview/conversation then please get in touch with me for a portfolio review.

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Comments 4

  1. Shelby September 17, 2016

    I really enjoyed this conversation! I even took notes on who inspires Phoebe, and I plan on checking them out on Instagram. I feel like Phoebe is the same type of seer/thinker as me, although our photos are very different. And since I’m so new to photography (6 months) this was very inspiring. Thanks for sharing!
    @shelbscura

    • Matt September 18, 2016

      Thanks for stopping by Shelby, and glad you enjoyed reading. As a fairly new photographer, do you have any ideas for future articles you’d like to see?

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