Sitting down with artist Lee Crum for the first time feels like catching up with one of your oldest friends. With a gregarious presence that seems to fill up the room, he’s the kind of guy that can get you excited about stale bread. He’s also a fantastic storyteller, with an ability to make it seem as if you, too, were there in 1983 crawling the streets of New Orleans with a camera in hand scouting the next great shot. But it’s Lee’s photographs that tell even greater stories. Take one look, for example, into the elusive gaze of Jack Nicholson or Anthony Hopkins (below), one of Lee’s first portrait subjects, and you’ll see the entire complex history of a person or place unfold.
Lee grew up in Arkansas. While he was a student at The University of Arkansas, he picked up a job shooting photographs for Little Rock’s daily newspaper. He had never taken a photography class, but decided to purchase a camera and discovered it felt right — you know, something just clicked. After spending three years shooting in Arkansas, Lee was offered another job at a newspaper in New Orleans. So he packed his bags and headed to the Bayou, excited by the prospect of fresh seafood, warm weather and good music. Soon he began taking freelance editorial jobs to supplement his newspaper gig. It wasn’t long before Lee had a steady stream of editorial shoots lined up with big-name outlets like Sports Illustrated. The commercial industry quickly recognized Lee’s talent. He wasn’t churning out the glossy kitsch of some of his contemporaries. His shots had edge — they made you take a second look, and left you feeling like you’d just been hit by something big.
Lee experienced a prolific career as a commercial photographer in New Orleans, bumping shoulders and even sharing drinks with some of the most iconic celebrities, athletes and musicians. But all the while, he continued to produce his own personal series of photographs, seeking out the people and places often overlooked by others. Aside from the local blues musicians of New Orleans, Lee was drawn to the Mexican Indians. His black-and-white series that chronicles the lives of this indigenous group is one that is intricately laced with both beauty and sadness, longing and hope. Inspired by the work of Diane Arbus, Lee also documented a group of traveling circus performers, revealing those uncanny characters housed by the big, striped tent.
In 2005, Lee experienced a big blow: Hurricane Katrina. His house and studio suffered significant damage, forcing him and his family to relocate to Florida and then to Nashville, where they live today. The move prompted a conceptual shift in Lee’s work. Removed from the city where he began a booming editorial career, he was forced to find a new method for making work. He began experimenting with different types of printing and toyed with tintypes, a method dating to the 1860s, in which positive images are manually transferred to a metal plate. He loved the material nature of these processes, but they didn’t seem to jive with portraiture. So he turned his focus to different subject matter, choosing to isolate fossils, bug relics and other organic elements that possess an inherent antique quality.
Lee has continued developing tintypes and ambrotypes, composing aggregate series of images of flowers, insects, snakes and other life forms. Though he has evolved his process, his new prints still generate the same tactile appeal as his earliest portraits. “For the last eight-plus years, I have turned my focus to still life work. These compositions of unusual relics and objects are derived from several processes that incorporate scanners, Polaroids, film, tintype and ambrotype processes, among others, in order to create a raw and authentic interpretation.”