Jocelyn Lee, Untitled (Margie in Chelsea Hotel), 2009. Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

About the Cover

When photography’s inventors were looking for a name for the new medium, they proposed many versions. The most evocative was the first: heliography, sun writing, writing with light. It suggested ancient myths and modern technology, promethean desire and some unprecedented new power, harnessed for the first time. If, in the photographs of Jocelyn Lee, light seems to take precedence over her subjects, it is because she has identified (and identified with) something primordial about the medium. In her portraits especially, it is as if the photographs—directing and deploying light—had somehow given birth to the subjects themselves. No matter what age her people are—they range from infants to the aged—and no matter what their state, even at the edge of death, they appear new born, emerging into the light. When she captured Margie at the Chelsea Hotel, the image on the cover, her camera seems to have orchestrated a moment of unusual self-sufficiency. Margie is indisputably there, in the light. Characteristically, Margie does not acknowledge Lee’s camera, and yet it seems to have ratified her, unveiled her in a pale light that is the source and end of being. The exhibition of recent photographs, Nowhere but Here, on view at Pace/MacGill Gallery (May 6–June 12) gives us a chance to trace some of these deep and delicate currents in Lee’s work. For instance, many of Lee’s previous photographs show people either in or near water. The words immersed and emerged, which sound so much alike, seem to be two sides of the same coin, suggesting both beginning (in light) and ending (in dissolution). But water is also a birth medium and light can be obliterating. Likewise Lee’s presentation of nakedness has a double valence. In the light, her subjects (the majority are women) cannot hide; they show the evidence of time on their bodies. Yet aging itself appears to be a process sculpted by light, quiet, constant and slow, and even the wrinkles look pristine and new. “Lee is not afraid to let her subjects be quiet,” says Peter MacGill, who was captivated by Lee’s work the moment he first saw it. “She does not impose. She lets the picture unveil the subject.” The quietness seems borrowed from northern European paintings, from Van Eyck through Vermeer. The light in those paintings was a subtly moralizing one, telling stories about the human passage through a widening world that somehow mirrored a sacred story. Lee’s light is photographic, secular, caught up in time, but no less transfixing. To write with light, to make a photograph, is always to condense in one image the past and future, to show what is there and what will inevitably be gone. The people in these pictures seem not just to inhabit this state but to know it, as pure radiance. They are content to remain in light.