John Elmer Lee was born in Spokane, Washington. His family moved to Berkeley, California when he was seven. Coming of age amid the tumultuousness of Berkeley in the sixties, John established a career as a racing motorcycle mechanic and engine builder. It was during this period that John first became interested in meditation and eastern philosophy.
John moved to Corvallis, Oregon while in his thirties where he made a transition to working with NGOs first as programme director for a cooperative and then as the director of a large volunteer organisation. During that time, he established a graphic design business, a small publishing company and, with his wife, a consulting firm.
In 1998, John moved to Portland, Oregon to devote himself fully to the art of photographic interpretation. His explorations took him to Germany, France and Spain to explore medieval landscapes, and he has extensively studied landscapes of the U.S. Pacific Northwest, U.S. Southwest and Canada.
In 2000 John developed a passion for wildlife photography with a focus on the birds of the Pacific Northwest. He spent the next five years tracking and cataloguing the birds of the Columbia River Basin and surrounding wetlands. Long days out in fields and wetlands deepened his love of nature and renewed his interest in meditation. This interest combined with the intuitive skills needed to be a successful nature photographer reached fruition as he merged the two disciplines.
In 2006 John and his wife immigrated to New Zealand seeking new horizons and became citizens in 2011. The focus of his photography has been on native bush, pelagic and shore birds. He is currently expanding his catalogue to include landscapes and studies of birds in flight. All of the images in Portraits of New Zealand Native Birds are from the period 2006 to 2015.
For over thirty years, John Lee has been an avid photographer of landscapes and wildlife. He spent the last twenty-five years mastering traditional photography and graphic design. For the last fifteen years he has focused on mastering the art of digital photography and developing a unique catalogue of images that were sold through galleries, the internet and art fairs. Since emmigrating to New Zealand in 2006, his images have been published in the Craig Potton Wildlife Calendars, including the 2010 cover image. In his quest to bring his subjects to life he has developed unique techniques and processes including printing to wetted rice paper and was a pioneer in HDR color printing.
John’s writing includes technical and political articles and a book on volunteerism, “The Generic Volunteer Orientation Manual.” For several years he published a political blog on peace and justice issues relating to the Iraq war. He has written and published several newsletters and manuals for NGOs, Non-Profts, Educational Institutions, and had a successful graphic design business for twelve years.
A transformative moment in my childhood occurred when I was ten. I was taken by my mother to see an exhibit of Van Gogh’s paintings. Oh, the colour, the subtlety and the intensity. A sunflower seeming to burst forth with sunlight, a field of grain so real and surreal, at the same time, and the mood of clouds playing on some field workers, dark, but movingly evocative. I was astounded. And a door was opened… My photography is an attempt to explore colour and depth with the same awe I felt at that exhibit. The birds of New Zealand have only added to my awe and astonishment. One bird, the Tui, is to some, a nuisance blackbird, waking you to its raucous calls; to others, a glorious, spectacular rainbow of metallic color, blessed with some of the most varied songs in the avian realm. Another, the Takahe, moves through the edge of the bush like a slowly grazing cow. The light hits, and it becomes blues and greens and cyan, crowned by the biggest, reddest beak imaginable, and oh, those soulful eyes.
New Zealand is blessed with many native birds that have this quality – At first glance, drab and dull, but when examined more closely, spectacular and rewarding. The Tauhou, Korimako, and the Kereru leap to mind – Or the beautiful patterns of feathers, revealed only on close examination as on the Hihi, the Toutouwai, or the Weka. There is color and form enough for the most jaundice eye, and almost overwhelming to one willing to take it all in.
My parents owned a copy of Audubon’s “Birds in America,”and I remember as a child of seven intently staring at the beautiful, and sometimes violent depictions of the paintings. The book endlessly fascinated me. Some days I would go cover-to-cover, studying each page carefully. Other days, I would limit myself to my favourite birds–the Golden Eagle, the Snowy Owl, the Loon or the Kite.
Audubon’s paintings are etched in my memory to this day and they’ve become the inspiration for my photography. The birds, shot and then posed by Audubon, come back to life in his paintings, exuding the very essence and the life of the birds they represent. Although I deal with living subjects, it feels as if Audubon is standing behind me, on every photograph I take, guiding me, asking, “Is the light just so; does it capture the life in the eye?” “Does the foliage reflect the habitat of the bird?” “Is there a better angle that might allow the bird’s character to be revealed?”
Ansel Adams’s photographic studies taught me a great lesson. For a photograph to be considered art, interventions by the photographer, at some level, are needed. How the subject is focused is one intervention. Other interventions can be through the camera’s placement, the filters used, or the camera’s settings. Another manner of expression is to intervene in the darkroom. The darkroom, whether digital or chemical, can assist the photographer to expose what was hidden, or to reveal more closely what the eye saw, rather than what light the film or sensor was able to gather. This was easily seen when, as an amateur, I would receive images back from the lab and be unpleasantly surprised at how flat the colours seemed, how two–dimensional, and most importantly, not at all what my eyes had seen.
Adams did not accept these limitations. Instead, he worked tirelessly in the lab to restore what his eyes had witnessed. Years after he had published an image, he would sometimes take the negative back into the lab and try to reveal still more than his previous efforts had allowed.
His interventions in the darkroom sometimes infuriated critics, who cried foul, that it was somehow cheating. Today the debate rages on about digital photography, just as it did with Adams’s darkroom magic, just as it did when acrylics were introduced to painting, and probably when cave painters introduced earthen pigments to the charcoal paradigm. What is important, I believe, is that the artist / photographer must always attempt to express his or her singular vision, and not be limited by the expectations of any given audience. Thus, within the context of photography, one must carefully examine his or her tools, techniques and limitations and how they will affect the finished work. My choices, in my studio, were taken so that I, too, could more closely present what my eyes had witnessed.