Lee Høwell Collaboration Captures Soft-Focus Teen Angst

Lee Høwell is the award-winning UK-based commercial photographer with a passion for great concepts and a flair for the romantic. His photography accolades stretch from being recognised as an Adobe New Creative in 2014, to winning BIPP Scotland’s Commercial & Advertising Photographer of the year 2015. In the series ‘What if we wonder’ he collaborates with international R+Co hair stylist Jason Hall to create a soft-focus, warm-lit exploration of the lighter sides of teenage angst.

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Using poetry fragments found scattered across the internet, Lee’s series consists of composite images slung together in the style of a teen scrapbook, one in which the tone is not restricted to petulance and existential crises, but extends into love and personal growth. The bee-stung lips and dewy skin perfectly showcase the tousled locks of Jason’s styling, and underpin the series with an innocence that balances the serious affect of the poetry lines: a condition many of us can empathise with from our teen years.

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Many of us remember our more taxing younger years with some mortification, but ‘What if we wonder’ is a refreshingly fond look at being teenage; we spoke to Lee to see how he helped pull the shoot together, and what went into the concept.

The Plus: Could you tell us a bit about how you got involved in the project?
Lee Høwell:
Jason Hall and I have worked with each other on a number of award winning projects over the past few years, so when he suggested that we put together the ‘What if We Wonder’ series I jumped at the chance. I particularly enjoy being involved with the creative input on a new project; it’s this passion for creativity that drives me.

First and foremost this was a project to showcase Jason’s work, having recently been shortlisted for Men’s hairdresser of the year at the British Hair Awards 2016. We wanted to build on that series, in which he had used young guys of a similar age.

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TP: How did you achieve the polaroid look?
Initially we tested with Jason’s Polaroid camera, with an aim to simply write the quotations in pen on the actual prints, but it was just not giving us the level of quality we were looking for. So we decided to shoot digitally and replicate the analogue aesthetic in postproduction, carefully matching the colour grading to the desired Kodak film of choice. The finished result, along with other additional elements, such as fixing tape and coffee stains, gave us the more conceptual look we were after.

TP: The quotations used are from lesser-knows poems, is that right? Could
you tell us a bit about that decision?
Once the main concept was conceived I did some research, trying to source the right wording to match the type of images we were capturing. The internet is awash with websites, blog sites, and resources dedicated to the quotation of poetically written teenage angst, both positive and negative in nature.

For me it was about choosing the right wording to match the series we were putting together, so pretty much all of the quotations are of a positive nature. I was especially looking for wording that would give a little insight or tell a story about the portrait the viewer was looking at, in much the same way that an actor’s words are carefully crafted for the particular role of a certain character in a film or theatre production. These images are as much works of fiction as they are photographs.

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TP: Did you choose the models – and if so, what were you looking for?
We were definitely after a certain look from the models: fresh faced, yes, but they also had to have a certain something about them. For instance Pacey, our male model, [IMAGES AROUND HERE FOR POLAROIDS 22-26] has a genuine natural style about him; one that is quite contemporary but which also harks back to a retro cool, matching the analogue tone of the series perfectly.

TP: So could you talk us through this style?
We wanted the models to look as if each had their own sense of identity, their own sense of individualism, taking inspiration from cool seventies teen imagery, but with a contemporary feel for this Instagram generation which the images would feed into.

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TP: So what tools did you use?
I shot on a Canon EOS 5D mkiii, with an EF85mm f/1.2L II USM lens, shooting between f/1.2 & f/1.6, with constant light, using Bowens and Westcott lighting. This allowed me to shoot at a very shallow depth of field, focusing solely on the eyes of the model, quite close, which made for a more intimate and personal feel to the portraits.
Postproduction colour grading was done in Adobe Photoshop CC, matching colours to that of a Kodak E100G-Cool slide film type, which helped me achieve the colour palette I was after, and give that lovely colour tone to the final portraits.

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TP: What is it that draws you to portraiture?
For me photography is all about portraiture; photographing mostly people and sometimes animals, I rarely shoot still life. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, and it is always my intention to capture a little insight into my sitter’s personality when I photograph them, even if it is just for that small moment of time that we share together.

TP: Is there anyone you’d love to get in front of your camera as a portrait subject?
For a simple portrait I’d love the opportunity to do something more considered. To be able shoot a series similar to Platon’s portraits of world leaders, or like Annie Leibovitz I’d love to have the opportunity to do a formal portrait of Her Majesty the Queen or the Duchess of Cambridge.

I think being given the opportunity to photograph indigenous tribal people from various parts of the world would be the perfect portraiture assignment. It would be great to be able to go back out to Africa, with the sole purpose to photograph some beautiful, honest portraits in much the same way Joe L or Steve McCurry have done previously.

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Hair: Jason Hall
Hair: Assistant: Emma Ellis
Makeup artist: Kelly Cripps
Wardrobe Styling: Rebecca Donaldson
Models: Pacey Young, Lori Beth Stott, Bethany Moffat, Beth Morley, Claire Thompson, Carrie Anderson
Agency: Colours Model Management
Studio: The Hub
Photography & Postproduction: Lee Høwell

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