Jocelyn Lee’s images are borne of nature. To walk into a room lit with her work is to look out at the universe itself—planets and moons, bright galaxies, nebulae, dark matter—all of it expanding, so much to examine that we are no mere onlookers but nineteenth-century naturalists engrossed with our telescopes or perusing our cabinets of wonders, our halls of biodiversity . . .
For Jocelyn, portraits are a kind of still life, and still-lifes a kind of portrait. It was barely a leap from the troughs to her interest in human bodies, our own temporality, our blooming and fading, our collective stories, which are all the same in the end: we come, we go, wisdom accruing, skin sagging, liquids seeking their level, gases in, gases out, the fruit that we are, the petals of us, the leaves and bark . . .
— Bill Roorbach, “Celestial Bodies: The Work of Jocelyn Lee”
My Husband’s Garden—a Collaborative Project by Jocelyn Lee and Brian Urquhart
I married for the second time in 2015 and felt compelled to save the wedding flowers. Photography has always been a form of preservation for me, a way of slowing the world down and suspending it, allowing me time to look, again and again, at things that fascinate me. In this instance, I wasn’t ready to let go of these beautiful flowers (and perhaps the moment they celebrated), so I placed them in a giant tub of water in my side yard and visited them daily. It was October and the weather was quietly shifting—warm days turned to cold nights and the flowers responded. Quickly I realized something interesting was happening. Flower bodies decay differently: some contracted into tight, mushy masses of color, while others became dissolute and thin, almost veil-like and drained of color. Some rose and pooched, while others sank and flattened. Depending on the time of day and quality of light, the theatrical stage of floating floral beings told different narratives. I began to photograph this protean world.
Meanwhile, my husband Brian began to garden. We had moved to Maine in 2014 and graduated from tending a very small patch of backyard in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, to nearly two acres in Cape Elizabeth. Brian dug deep and embraced the earth that surrounded us. He planted bare root apple, pear, and peach trees as well as myriads of berries bought from Fedco, a gardening collective in Maine. He began pruning and restoring the neglected but ancient apple trees that surround our property and revealed others hidden for years beneath invasive masses of bittersweet, feral raspberry, Norway maple, and thorny barberry. He built new food gardens, where he grew from seed vegetables such as kale, tomato, lettuce, eggplant, and potato. Then flowers began to appear: sunflowers, dahlias, false indigo, poppy, foxglove, delphinium, lupine, hyssop, Japanese irises, and in spring masses of daffodils and tulips. One year, 200 tulip bulbs were planted. As the fruit trees finally took hold and grew despite many losses and replacements due to deer and borers, a march of unusual trees and conifers appeared, creating pathways and gentle borders between our property and the neighbors. (I often photographed naked models in our yard and Brian thought it important to give the neighbors a little privacy). What was once a dirt driveway slowly filled with Japanese maples, white pine, pendular blue spruces, and Himalayan and bristlecone pines. In the fall, Brian would harvest seeds from our plants as they matured and buy new packets of seed in the winter. As time passed, the gardens grew and supported throngs of pollinators, birds, snakes, porcupines, and other mammals. It gave new shape to our land and our pathways through it. By the end of our ninth year in Maine, our home felt anchored to a living, breathing earth—the summers, an operatic expression of color and form—that had been quietly and steadily created by my husband to feed and comfort our small family.
If these flowers and plants are profound expressions of Brian’s love for us, so is this body of my photographic work a love letter to my husband. In all the years since 2015 (and the original Wedding Flowers image) I have not stopped making the still lifes. Even though I am first and foremost a portrait photographer, the still lifes have become a necessary and important part of my practice. I only use flowers, vegetables and berries that come from the gardens (with one exception, a pomegranate early on) cultivated by Brian, but sometimes to supplement these materials I will also visit the ocean near our home to collect seaweed from the beach. Since our move to Maine Brian and I try to swim a few days a week (at least during the summer!). While I hover near shore floating or dunking in and out of the frigid water, Brian swims farther out and dives deep, usually with mask and fins, to study the life of the ocean: the encrustations, crabs, and seaweed living among the rocks. He will often bring back big hauls of unmoored seaweed for my tubs.
This work is ever-evolving and has become a collaboration: an expression of my deep admiration for what my husband sees, nurtures, loves, and grows, but also a mutual celebration of our living environment, our garden of life, the fertile ground of Maine that envelops us. We fall asleep at night feeling nestled in the gardens that Brian has grown. Our house feels encircled by his love. I don’t think many days go by that we don’t comment on how lucky we are to live here. Brian was raised in Los Angeles, an environment very different from the cold winters and lush summers of Maine, but he somehow seems to feel this is the landscape that he was destined to live in.
But if this work serves to deliver a love letter to Brian, it is also a way of marking and chronicling time. It documents what blooms during different seasons and unflinchingly observes the fragility and evanescence of all life. With the climate crisis upon us, weather patterns changing and Maine waters warming, it is difficult to know what of these fragile and beautiful living things will be with us in fifty years. If part of the magic of photography is that it can help us to remember and in some ways suspend moments in time, my hope is that it will also aid us to see more clearly the gifts we enjoy and remind us of what we risk losing through indifference or inaction.
Image at top: Jocelyn Lee, Wedding Flowers, archival pigment print, dimensions variable, 2015.