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Lee O'Connor's Birds of Paradise

Upon her book launch and gallery opening this Friday at Williamsburg’s Picture Farm Gallery, the Greenpoint based photographer Lee O’Connor will be showcasing her latest series Birds of Paradise. Falling under the tutelage of Bruce Weber and William Abranowicz by sheer fate, O’Connor’s been able to transition her once dark aesthetic into something that is somewhat of a party. In anticipation of Friday’s event, we asked this week’s star photographer a few questions about her admiration of the female subject, and how she came to call herself a "stylish lifestyle" photographer.

Is Photography something you’ve always wanted to do?

Growing up, I was always drawing faces. I would draw images from fashion magazines and album covers. I didn’t discover photography until my second year of art school in Philadelphia.

How did you end up working under influential artists like Bruce Weber and William Abranowicz?

I was working as a waitress when I first moved to the city in 2003. After about a year and a half of that, I started racking my brain over how to get into the fashion photography world. I remember randomly flipping through a Le Book 2003 edition, and coming upon the promo piece of photographer Glen Luchford. I immediately contacted his agent about working for him. She answered, "How did you find out about the position?" I thought it was funny, because I had no idea he was looking for an assistant. Needless to say, I never wound up working for Glen, but he did mentor me for awhile, and his agent wound up passing me along to the other photographers she represented, one being Bill Abranowicz. I wound up working for Bruce Weber through assisting photographer Lynda Churilla. Lynda had worked for him for 8 years as his first assistant, and she recommended me.

How did working under their tutelage influence your work either in style or in work ethic?

Bruce has such joyful enthusiasm when he’s shooting, and I found that very inspiring. Just working with his team for two years was so inspirational and motivating. It helped me realize that you don’t always have to be shooting models to make an interesting image. He was always encouraging me to use regular everyday people in my shoots. I worked with Bill Abranowicz for years, and that was a wonderful time as well. He is such a good example of someone who works hard and makes beautiful images in all different genres. He can shoot anything and make it look beautiful. He has been so supportive of me and my work.

How has your work evolved/matured after working under such inspiring people and shooting for such large fashion magazines?

Yes, I’ve learned that creating images should be fun. My work has become a lot less serious. Bruce and his team were always having fun and keeping the atmosphere light, like a party. I think that’s how great images are made. Working in that environment helped my work evolve and move away from being so dark.

Weber is well known for his black and white photography as well as his muted colors, what makes you choose to shoot photos with such vibrant colors?

I guess that’s just my own thing- bright, vivid color. The Birds of Paradise project is definitely vivid, but I do occasionally shoot muted colors and black and white. But yes, I just love color. What is a world without color?

Tell us more about your project ‘Birds of Paradise,’ what was in August Sander’s ‘Face of Our Time’ that inspired you to create ‘Birds of Paradise?’

Face of Our Time is one of my favorite photography books. It inspired me to go out and capture people that I saw every day around my neighborhood. When I began the series in 2009, Williamsburg and Greenpoint had a lot of fanciful, interesting characters milling about, and I wanted to record their faces for posterity I guess. I wanted to make an index of these characters and create a time capsule of my era in NY. I decided to focus on a very specific demographic: young, artistic women in New York. I thought it would be a fun thing to look at in 20-30 years, and so that is what sparked me to start the portrait series.

You’ve mentioned that for ‘Birds of Paradise’ you approached these vibrant women and requested to take photos of them. What were you looking for? When and how did you first begin noticing your love for shooting women in your photos?

Like I said before, I wanted to capture these women for posterity. To capture them in all their glory at this moment in time, them being young and aspiring in New York, and doing their own thing. I have always loved photographing women. It’s just a natural inclination.

Your photos have a wide range of faces, styles, and moods, what constitutes something as beautiful to you? What makes you want to take the photo?

It depends on my mood. Sometimes I want to have a fun, energetic image. Sometimes I want to create a quiet moment. I find that my photos are very much influenced by the environment I’m shooting in, the energy around me, the light, and the subject I am photographing. It all comes together in the moment.

You’re recognized as both a fashion photographer and lifestyle photographer, do you recognize yourself more as one or the other?

I would ideally like my work to marry the two! I would say my work is "stylish lifestyle." :-)

Your sets are often comprised of natural or intimate settings such as the outdoors, a street corner, a bedroom, or the living room of someone’s apartment. Why do you choose to shoot outside of the usual studio and take a more natural approach to shooting models

There’s so much more to work with when you’re outside the studio, and I find it easier to create a narrative. I love shooting with natural light too. I still enjoy shooting in studio though, but mainly for portraits.

What makes you so interested in the “in-between” moments in life that you focus your work on it?

Like most photographers, I try to capture the "decisive moment" in a situation—that moment where all elements within the frame come together and harmonize.

You’ve now lived in Greenpoint for 11 years, what keeps you in New York? How does this neighborhood influence your work?

I think I’m one of those people that don’t know how to leave New York! Nothing compares to it, as far as the mix of cultures, the opportunities, the magical and crazy moments you can encounter walking down the street. It’s just home to me. As far as living in Greenpoint for 11 years, it’s just a great neighborhood that’s relatively quiet, safe, green, and keeps getting better and better restaurants. :-) I just don’t have a good enough reason to leave it yet. It’s more of a practical decision.

Photography by Lee O’Connor.

The opening reception for Lee O’Connor’s ‘Birds of Paradise’ will be held at Picture Farm Gallery (Williamsburg: 338 Wythe Ave, Brooklyn, NY) this Friday, March 20th from 6PM – 9PM.

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