Andy Lee: The Sensual Side of Fashion and Beauty

Andy Lee is a full-time professional photographer currently residing in Toronto, Canada. He specializes in fashion, beauty and lifestyle photography, which he executes with uncommon insight, drama and exquisite sensuality. Lee’s work has been exhibited and featured in a wide variety of well-known magazines and showcased internationally. His list of recent accomplishments and accolades includes receiving an Applied Arts Magazine award, the Unisource NUARs 2008 award and Two International Aperture Awards. Here in his owns words are the essential elements of his creative quest.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: Fashion photography isn’t just about pictures of beautiful people in beautiful clothes. There’s a saying “You can buy fashion, but you can’t buy style.” So my images aim at reflecting the sensibilities of pop culture, the clothing designers and makeup artists involved, the personality of my models and what I believe to be beautiful and interesting. That’s a pretty complex model, so my work feels like it oscillates from dramatic, agressive-energetic to calm and serene softness.  I want my images to feel like love letters– exuding allure but still seeking for affection.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, a profession? Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught?

A: I was always interested in photography and fashion as a child so going to art school was a pretty easy decision. In my first year at university, I was privileged to have had a photo instructor who saw potential in me; he kept challenging my work and pushed me to go further. It was a full “eureka” moment and from then on I pretty much devoted every waking moment to photography.  I hold a bachelor of Fine Arts Specialized Honours Degree from York University in Canada, as well as several college certificates in applied photography. After finishing school, I worked as a freelance photo assistant for about six years with different advertising photographers who taught me the business, how to hone my craft and then I went out on my own as a professional photographer.

Q: What genre or genres are your photos?

A: My work is primarily fashion and beauty commercial photography. I shoot a mix of editorial and advertising work, though I love shooting portraits and landscape work as well.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: When I first got interested in photography, I quickly learned that the Leica brand was synonymous with great lenses. Once I started studying the history of photography, I was fascinated by how Leica pioneered many aspects of photography, as well as the heritage of iconic photographers who shot with their cameras.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: Right now my primary working camera is the Leica M9, though depending on the job requirements, I’ll shoot with Canon 1Ds/5D or Phase back setup as well.

My absolute favorite lens is the Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH (my preferred focal length for most images). I’ve never seen a better performing lens with such nuanced character elsewhere. My other M lenses are the 28mm F2 Summicron ASPH., 35mm Summicron ASPH. and 75mm Summicron ASPH. I recently placed an order for the new 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE, which I’m quite excited about.

Q: What inspired you to use the M8 and M9 in the studio? What unique advantages and disadvantages have you found with using the Leica M-System in such a setting?

A: I grew up shooting with rangefinder cameras, so I guess there’s an inherent comfort level for me in using them. I feel my shooting process is less rigid and I approach framing the image in a slightly abstract way compared to shooting with SLRs. The viewfinder is quite accurate, but it doesn’t show exactly what the lens is seeing, so it’s sort of akin to getting the shot that you imagine in your head, as opposed to getting the shot that you see in front of you.

I’ve been shooting digital only since the early 2000′s, mostly with Canon SLRs. I was heavily invested in their cameras and lenses, but for some reason I kept looking for something else. When Leica first announced the M8 in 2006, I said to myself “I have to have one!”  Aside from being a rangefinder, for me the big pluses are amazing performing lenses, a super small and light camera body and the fact that I can easily focus in very dim light.

I feel that the Leica M9 is almost a perfect work camera for me. I tend to hit the buffer a lot, so I’ve missed some shots while waiting for the camera to catch up. On the next digital Leica M, I’d love to see a much faster buffer/image processor, good tethered-shooting software and maybe live-view could be useful.

Fellow photographers are often surprised to learn I shoot fashion with an M9, but I really don’t think a camera should dictate how/what you take pictures of.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography and what does photography mean to you?

A: Aside from being my profession, photography is a deeply personal process for me. I remember being younger and feeling it was very difficult articulating my thoughts and ideas verbally or in writing. The process of taking pictures clears everything up! I don’t feel like I’m truly alive unless I’m shooting, so I have a constant need to take photographs and to pursue growth as a photographer and take better and better pictures.

Q: Many photographers use digital DLRs and medium-format cameras to create stylized fashion images, but you do a masterful job with a Leica M9. Can you tell us a bit more about that experience?

A: I’ve done a lot of shoots with DSLRs and digital medium format backs. What I like about the Leica M9 is that it’s so small and light in comparison. I can move around quickly and it feels very unobtrusive, all the while producing images with amazing amounts of detail. I’m also pretty decent at focusing with a rangefinder, so manual lenses don’t slow me down too much.

Q: Many of your images are very sensual and glamorous, but they seem to have a naturalness and honesty that transcends the boudoir genre. Do you agree and if so, how do you achieve this?

A: Thanks! I do agree because it’s something I definitely strive for. I always try to create a rapport and sense of trust with my subjects so they can be themselves. I believe true beauty first and foremost comes from within. We are all too insecure and self-conscious to show it all the time, so it’s my job to bring it out in people when I’m behind the camera.

Q: All of your images exhibit an effective and sophisticated use of lighting, a hallmark of successful professionals. Do you prefer natural light or flash and can you say something about your concept of lighting in fashion photography?

A: Nothing beats natural sunlight!  It’s really difficult to reproduce the look of real natural looking sunlight, but I also shoot a lot with strobe lighting– it’s the control freak part of me I guess. I like very dramatic lighting, but I also don’t like it when images look overly ‘lit’ so I try to limit the number of lights I use.

Q: Most photojournalists and street photographers who shoot with the Leica M9 use 35mm and 28mm lenses for the majority of their work, but you prefer the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux. Why do you favor the 50mm focal length and does Summilux have any specific characteristics that help you to articulate your vision? Also, when do you use other lenses on your M9?

A: When I’m in the middle of shooting, I often change lenses to try out different ideas, but I find I just keep going back to the 50mm focal length because it gives just the right amount of perspective I look for in my images. Shooting with the Leica M9 and 50mm Summilux ASPH at f/4 is just incredible.

I just got my new 35mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH. FLE and I can’t stop raving about it. I like it even more than my 35mm Summicron ASPH, which is saying A LOT!

Q: There is a definite retro quality to your close-up portrait of a model with sensuous lips and a vintage hairdo posed against a floral background– it almost looks like a still taken from Gone With The Wind! Can you tell us something about this image and what you were trying to convey?

A: I wanted to shoot a very dynamic beauty story that was bold in color but still soft in my subject (model) and concept (florals), so I shot with a pretty big open aperture. I like the play on vibrancy against delicacy.

Q: With one possible exception, the images in your blog portfolio are either high contrast or low contrast. What influences your decision in which way to go, do you think you favor contrast extremes and if so, can you tell us about how this fits into your creative process.

A: Yes! I’m all about contrast extremes. I like how fashion photography can be this big, bold, larger-than-life world on one side of the coin, and super intimate low-tech/low-key on the other. I choose one style over the other based on the wardrobe/model/environment/makeup and vice versa. All these elements need to be cohesive and appropriate in order to complete the planned idea. Before going into a shoot I will always create mood boards of images that inspire me and have a creative brief with my team to make sure we are all on the same page. Unlike other genres of photography, fashion photography is a very collaborative process.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say the next 3-5 years and do you plan to explore any other genres professionally or as personal expression?

A: I’m in my 30s, so I am considered a young photographer. Right now I am focused on developing my commercial career, so that means landing bigger, high-profile jobs and clients and shooting more work on an international level.

I think being a good photographer means that you ALWAYS need to reinvent yourself and stay fresh.  I have a number of ideas for shoots I’d like to do but I can’t be sure it will determine my style in the next few years– it’s really a trial and error process.  The key is to just keep shooting!

You can see more of Andy’s work on his website, www.andyleephotography.com. You can also connect with Andy on Twitter.