Think of those moments in life that must be captured
Think of those moments in life that must be captured, that you know will be tommorow’s bright memories. A marriage. The early days of a new family’s life together. The “wonder years” of childhood. Then imagine those special times or feelings that only you would know. Celebrating a success. Feeling incredibly sexy and confident. Needing reasurance that middle age has not dimmed your attractiveness. Wanting a legacy when old age or ill health set in.
Suna Lee, master portrait photographer, specializes in recording such moments, coupling her technical experience with an artist’s eye. During her 25-year career, she has learned to take time to know her clients so as to understand what they want from their portraits. “I have the opportunity to meet so many people at all the different stages of life, from birth to old age. I try to share some of my life with people just as they share their lives with me.
My work is about much more than just “lining up for the shot.” Appreciating how the photograph fits into the context of a person’s or a family’s life is the first step in setting the stage for the portrait.
Upon entering Suna’s studio and gallery in Mclean, there is a sense of entering a world where she is very much in artistic control. Elaborately carved teak armchairs flank a sofa and glass topped table surrounded by her most representative photographs. Young adult children and their parents are dressed formally in one, giving a sense of unity and success. In another, a young blonde girl dressed in white ruffles sits like a princess. A dramatic bronze toned portrait shows a beautiful woman, her hair sensuously arrayed around her. Thick leather-bound wedding albums and some of her award winning photographs line the eadges of the room. This attention to comfort, aesthestics and intimacy seem characteristic of the photographer and her work. She is welcoming, enthusiastic, eager to talk and to find the creative slant on things. Her eyes miss nothing.
Lee’s creativity was nurtured in South Korea in the ’50’s and ’60’s where she was the youngest of nine children. She first played with a manual camera borrowed from an older brother and in high school studied art, knowing then that she would be an artist. Searching for opportunities unavailable to young Korean women and enamored with American life, she emigrated to the U.S. at 17. While studying art at Indiana University, she fell in love with photography and knew she had found her medium of expression.
The challenges of photography fascinate her. “Photography as a medium has the advantage of being elusive and precise. A photographer is limited to a 30-color range in full exposure whereas a painter has closer to 100 colors, so color is more available as a means of expression. To compensate for the difference, the photographer relies on light and shadow. I use light the way a painter uses color and the brush stroke.”
Since the camera sees only two dimensions, the photographer must rely on manipulating light to create other dimensions. This limitation becomes a challenge and an advantage when working with the complex curves and angles of the human body.
Indivividual features suggest the way she needs to use lighting to accentuate or minimize aspects of a person’s face or body. Correct lighting can better define a flat nose or minimize a double chin while tilting the head can align unevenly set eyes. “My goal is always to beautify rahter than to distort. Everyone is beautiful in some way.” Her job as photographer is to create a trusting relationship and evocative setting that elicits that beauty. Her portraits seem to be realistic and idealistic at the same time.
Nowhere is this more evident than in her boudoir or body image photographs; her reputation precedes her and clients come from surrounding states. She and her client decide how revealing the photograph will be. Suna says that her work is dictated by the needs of the person’s particular body and the personal qualities that she is trying to convey in the portrait. In these photographs, her subjects seem relaxed, confident and alluring. Light and shadow are allies in this process, evoking whatever mood is desired.
After processing, Suna can apply various finished surfaces. Light oil paints give added texture and simulate the appearance of a painting. She also finish photographs with watercolors, transferring the images to thick paper, giving a more impressionistic effect.
With figure studies, Suna can create an antique crackled appearance that resembles a sepia print. Using color or black and white film, she has won numerous state and national professional photography awards , especially for her portraits of women. She gives the awards to clients who have posed for her winning portraits.
When asked what other type of photography she might like to pursue, she appears momentarily confused. “I suppose I would like to photograph nature,” and then adds, “but with people in it. Nature would become the primary dimension with the people with the people secondary.” However, for Suna this arrangement would turn the world upside down. People should always be primary.
A Personal Interview with (Webmaster) Eric Mourer
From her elegant studio and gallery in McLean, Suna Lee reflects on her life journey as a photographer.
Q. You’ve been shooting for 27 years. Is there one key element that defines your portraits?
A. Yes, above all, my work is about bone structure, shadow, and light. If I’ve learned one thing (and I hope I’ve learned many!), it is that I can look at a face or figure, observe the bone structure, and know how to light it to bring out the natural beauty. Light and shadow become the paintbrushes that unlock and emphasize the beauty beneath the surface. People who have not seen it don’t realize how great they can look.
Q. What is the secret to getting a great portrait?
A. First, I want to get to know each client and understand his or her unique needs. This is why I meet with every prospective client for a consultation. This is a no-cost meeting where the client and I exchange ideas and begin to plan a photographic session. We discuss specific things like hair, makeup, color coordination, as well as more general ideas concerning the mood or tone of the portrait. As we share ideas and view some of our in-house, we begin to narrow things down and plan a basic direction for the portrait session. Of course, you can’t plan spontaneity. Each session has its own electricity and mood. This is a part of the excitement of photography. Our new studio has a wonderful shooting area with both natural window lighting and strobe lighting, and we have installed a state-of-the-art stereo system to set just the right mood for each person and occasion. In the end, getting a great portrait comes down to good planning, getting to know the character and feelings of each person, and helping people to relax. Twenty years of experience helps!
Q. When you left Korea for America at age 17, why did you want to become a portrait photographer?
A. Portraiture has been my passion for as long as I can remember. It sure doesn’t seem like twenty-some years! (laughs) I’m so fortunate to be living out my dream, working with such wonderful clients, and doing something I love. Many of my clients have walked with me and grown with me over the years. I have seen their weddings, seen the spark of emotion and love – and then to see their firstborn child in my studio, and then a second and a third – well it gets emotional for me, too! That personal connection with each client really inspires me and gives me great satisfaction!
Q. What were the origins of Lee’s Photography?
A.”After studying fine art photography in college, I started out like most other photographers: for two years my home became my studio. In 1981 a partner and I opened a studio in a storefront on Columbia Pike in Annandale. We were known as L&S; Photography back then. I bought him out after only a few months and changed the name to Lee’s Photography. In 1987 I moved the business to an older building on Arlington Boulevard in Falls Church.”
Q. After ten years in Falls Church, you moved again to McLean. Why?
A.”We simply outgrew our building. We never did much advertising, nearly all of our business was by word of mouth. We started doing a few more ads in the early 90’s, and our poor old building just couldn’t keep up. Now we have plenty of room to work and to grow.”
Q. What are some of the advantages of your new studio?
A.”Comfort and location. We strive to make people comfortable, we want them to be relaxed. Everything from our plush consulting rooms to the separate, private shooting area is designed with client comfort in mind. I’ve found over the years that people are much happier with their portraits if we can help them relax and enjoy the spontaneity of the shooting.
“Of course our new space is very efficient for my staff and I as well. McLean is an ideal location for us. On any given day we may have clients come from anywhere in the metropolitan area. One of our recent clients has made many trips from the Eastern Shore of Maryland!”