Behind the scenes with Sarah Lee
Posted on December 11 2020
A self-taught photographer, London-based Sarah Lee has been shooting for the Guardian and Observer for the last two decades. Specialising in portraiture, features and the arts, Sarah’s particular focus has been on people and the shared human experience. Her work has been published in a diverse range of publications including the covers of TIME magazine, Billboard, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. Sarah’s music experience also led to her shooting the commercial portraits for Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto album. An official BAFTA Photographer and Leica Ambassador, Sarah counts Visa, Apple and Transport for London amongst her extensive client list. We caught up with Sarah for an insight into her intriguing career and a sneak peek at some forthcoming projects for 2020.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I’m from the West Midlands and came to photography relatively late after being given a dusty Pentax K1000 with a 50mm 1.6 as an 18th birthday present. I was initially rather disappointed since I was hoping for one of the funky Olympus 35mm point and press numbers that were fashionable at the time. But as soon as I worked out how to use it, I really took to photography and started to become slightly obsessed. I then moved to London to study English literature at UCL, but I took up with the student newspaper (they gave you free film and access to a dark room, and being skint this was invaluable!). The newspaper was going through a golden period with Abbie Trayler Smith as the picture editor and photographers like Dom Tyler, Ed Alcock and Sim Chi Yin also queuing for their time with the enlarger. It ended up being like a second degree really, running in parallel with the ‘official’ one I was doing.
Ipswitch Train. February 2018. Photo by Sarah Lee.
Do you have an ‘idol’ or role model in the world of photography? Please tell us who and why.
I don’t really have anyone I’d presume to model myself on. Rather, I muddle along in my own image, but there are numerous figures I admire and whose work inspires and delights me. My photography Gods were/are not unusual: 20th Century (mostly humanist) giants like Cartier-Bresson, McCullin, Vivian Maier, Shirley Baker, Irving Penn, William Eggleston, Helmut Newton, Stephen Shore, Lee Miller and many more – as well as more recent photographers: Polly Borland is a constant source of awe, Neil Libberts (I’ve never stopped being childishly thrilled that we have worked together at the Guardian and Observer for a number of years), Wolfgang Tillmans, Bruce Davidson, John Bulmer, Brian Harris, Jane Bown and, again, many more.
Photo from the celebrations for the Royal wedding in Windsor, 2018. Photo by Sarah Lee.
You began your career as a freelance photographer for the Guardian in 2000. How did that come about?
I took a portrait of novelist Iris Murdoch when I was working during my MA as a researcher on Murdoch’s biography, which caught the eye of, then, picture editor Eamonn McCabe. His favourite portrait that he himself took that year (1999) was of her, and he invited me on a total whim to start at the Guardian on a two day a week trial... I’ve never left.
Iris Murdoch - Photo by Sarah Lee
We’re fascinated to hear that you were commissioned to shoot the commercial portraits to accompany Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto album and tour in 2011-2012. Please tell us more about this project and how it came about.
Lucky chance. I happened to be at college with Coldplay when they formed and shared a hall of residence with them. I knew them, and they were close friends with my flat-mate (and continuing very dear friend and collaborator, Mat Whitecross). Indeed, the very first pictures I ever sold, before starting at the Guardian, were the portraits of the band that are on the inner sleeve of their first album, Parachutes. Obviously, while I was finding my feet on the very bottom rungs of the photography career ladder, they were catapulted to global mega fame. I did see them at the odd party over the years but not professionally. Then they made a Christmas single with Mat Whitecross doing the video (he’s done many of their videos over the years). I was a loose end that day and he asked if I’d come along to the shoot and take some candids. I did. Chris Martin really liked the shots and asked me to undertake a more formal shoot to publicise their upcoming album. Given what a big production new Coldplay albums can be, this shoot got bigger and bigger in its arrangements until it was a two day affair with the entire Millennium Mills site hired by City Airport and an onsite graffiti artist. Those shoots went well and I was invited back for more shoots – the next one involved hiring out an entire disused airbase next to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It’s not the kind of work I’d want to do all the time, but it was great fun, creatively exciting and a huge shot in the arm ego-wise. It also paid me enough to make the leap to swap from my Nikon kit to Leica – a choice that has really worked for me creatively.
One of Sarah's shots for Coldplay's Mylo Xyloto album
You have just had another fantastic multi-page feature published in the Guardian from this year’s BAFTA ceremony. We’d love to know more about your work with BAFTA. Please elaborate!
A few years ago a fellow photographer, Ian Derry, introduced me to BAFTA’s then head of photography, Janette Dally, and she liked my work and invited me to shoot the awards ceremony access all areas (red carpet, green room, backstage, the dinner, etc) any way I liked. I decided to try and concentrate on the intimate moments in this very public event, cutting out all the visual noise of branding and ‘what are people wearing, etc’ to try and reference the classic ‘old Hollywood’ imagery of an earlier time. Janette was really pleased with the essay I produced and I was fortunate enough to be asked back the next year. And then again. When she moved back to her native New Zealand I was fortunate enough to form a good relationship with the new head of photography, Claire Rees. I’m only there by invitation each year, but it’s been six years now and I think we both feel we’re building a good consistent body of work for their archive.
John Boyega at the BAFTA red carpet - Photo by Sarah Lee
We have read about your long-term projects ‘Sidewalk America’ and ‘West of West’, both highlighting life in the United States. Please share some more information about this work and what people might expect to see.
West of West is currently published by Unbound and available in Waterstones, etc. In ‘grom’ surfer years, thirty-seven is pretty geriatric, but it’s when I decided to get over a twenty-year aversion to the ocean and learn to surf - a work very much in progress, I hasten to add. I was with my husband in Los Angeles, a town we know well. It’s where we got married back in 2005. We used to spend a third of every year there. I drove to the shore each morning along the magically named Christopher Columbus Trans-Continental Highway, otherwise known as ‘Historic’ Route 66, or, more prosaically, in LA, the 10 Freeway. The official end of Route 66 is at the furthermost tip of the famous Santa Monica Pier. Until I looked back to the shore from my surfboard in my place beyond the line-up, I’d never really appreciated that sense of the Western edge of America. There in front of me was America, behind me nothing but water until Japan. Nothing West of West.
Shot of Santa Monica from 'West of West' by Sarah Lee.
I worked on the series over a number of trips, about two or three visits a year for three years. I only used one camera (a Leica Rangefinder) and the same 35mm prime lens with a not terribly powerful flash. All I had to care about was framing within the parameters I’d already set myself, and trying to find images and moments of unexpected narrative within the contingent randomness of everyday life.
Shot from 'West of West' by Sarah Lee.
In all my work, I try to show a genuine interest in people, whoever they are. That’s why the melting pot of Santa Monica appealed. The racial mix, coupled with the mingling of wealthy sun-seekers, city workers taking a break, or lost impoverished souls who’ve spent their last bucks heading ‘out West’ to be on the street in the sun. This is what I was trying to document, using colour and tone to link their stories.
Shot from 'West of West' by Sarah Lee.
Most photographers have a personal favourite photograph. What would you consider to be the most notable or outstanding picture you’ve ever taken and why?
I would perhaps choose the portrait of Iris Murdoch that I took back in 1998/9. I’m still very proud of it and it definitely changed my life. Without McCabe seeing it and offering me that Guardian job, I don’t think I’d have considered the possibility that I could be a professional photographer. It’s odd to have such tangible evidence of one of those exact moments when your life pivots.
We understand that you mainly use Leica equipment for your work. Can you tell us more about the cameras, lenses and accessories you prefer to use and why?
I use a Leica M10, M10-P and Leica Q2. Regarding lenses, I use a 50mm f/1.4 and a 35mm f/2 for 80% of my work, a 28mm/90mm/24mm for everything else, and a Leica M6 for some personal work. The rangefinder just really works for me. I love being able to see outside of the frame and anticipate movement into the framelines in a way you can’t with an SLR. I love working with a smaller, slower (manual) system. Manual focusing seems to work for me in a way that really sophisticated auto-focusing didn’t. I’m not sure why the Leica system is such a good fit for me and the style I like to work in, but it really is. I even use rangefinders on commercial advertising shoots now – rather to the surprise of some creative directors.
Sergi Polunin at Sadlers Wells Theatre, London. Photo by Sarah Lee
We know that you are a European judge for Apple’s ‘Shot on an iPhone Challenge’. What are your thoughts on mobile photography?
The best camera is the one in your hand and very often that’s your phone. Now phone cameras are so advanced, that allows for some interesting developments. But, like any camera, it’s just metal and plastic without a good eye!
A photo from Sarah Lee's Instagram feed.
If you could take just one piece of equipment with you to an important event or trip, what would it be?
If I HAD to choose it would be the Leica M10-P with the 50mm f/1.4.
We believe you are currently using a Hadley Pro 2020, but also own other Billingham bags. What are your favourite Billingham products and why?
I’ve been using Billingham bags off and on since the 90s, when I was a student. But since I committed to Leica kit in 2011/2 I’ve been using the Hadley Pro. I over-fill them and they have a very hard life, so I have worked my way through a few of them. They fit three Leicas, three or four lenses, a flash gun, a laptop and various batteries, cables and accessories. I find with a bit more effort I can squeeze in a novel and a scarf too!
Photo by Sarah Lee of her Hadley Pro 2020 in Burgundy Canvas/Chocolate Leather.
How do you use your Billingham bags day to day?
I take the Hadley Pro with me every day of my working life and whenever I travel.
What advice would you give to young people considering a career in photography today?
Remember to know your worth. If it’s good enough to be published it’s good enough to be paid for. When someone offers you ‘exposure’ in lieu of payment, or with some vague idea that next time will be paid, 99% of the time that’s a con. It’s a tough industry but it is possible to earn a living and keep afloat. Starting off knowing your worth is a good place to begin a career.
Scene from the island of Hydra in Greece. Photo by Sarah Lee.
Aside from photography, what’s your biggest passion, pastime or hobby?
Learning to surf has been a total joy, not that I’m any good at all! And I’m devoted to Frieda, our elderly schnauzer.
A photo of Sarah Lee's from her Instagram feed. Photo by Polly Samson
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