For more than ten years, Lees has been quietly documenting the St. Louis music scene, taking candid photographs and storing them away in her personal records. Initially, she hadn't planned on showing the images to anybody. But she had a change of heart -- on August 13, more than 500 of the photographs will be on display, offering viewers an intimate glance into the heart of the scene.
Lees isn't a musician herself, but she is every bit a part of the scene as the men and women in her photographs. In addition to being a regular contributor to RFT Music, she and Bunnygrunt's Matt Harnish maintain HaikuLou, a minimalist music blog that exclusively features show reviews in haiku form. Between the two of them, they have written more than 800 poems over the last four years. For Lees, St. Louis music is as important as family.
"I'm not trying to document some scene; I'm just taking pictures of my friends," Lees says. "There's some kind of holy thing that these musicians are tapping into. I can't do it, so the best I can do is document it. This is just how I show my appreciation."
While many of the images in the show are entrancingly beautiful, exploding with crisp light and deep contrast, what makes these photographs so captivating is the way that they capture the personalities and emotions in every moment. In one image, Lees' favorite, local artist Dana Smith and musician Anne Tkach sit together at the bar at Ryder's Tavern. The photo was taken in January of this year, just months before Tkach tragically passed away in a fire at her father's house. Tkach faces the camera, but both of them seem completely oblivious to Lees, totally wrapped up in their conversation. They each smile thoughtfully, and look as if there is nowhere they would rather be.
"That's her at her happiest," Lees explains. "It's one of my favorite photos I've ever taken because Anne looks so great in that picture."
These are the kinds of moments that Lees looks for when she is at a show. Although there are plenty of photographs of live music in this body of work, most of the pictures capture the musicians before and after they step onto the stage. Lees is more interested in people than performances, capturing her musician friends dancing in the crowd, loitering outside the venue or hugging and kissing one another.
"With actual journalism its about capturing exactly what's there, but with a photo it's about capturing how the room feels, or the feeling of what's happening in there," Lees says. "Some things just want to be pictures."
The 560 photographs that will be on display at Blank Space on August 13 are just a small sliver of the many thousands of pictures that Lees has taken in the past ten years. For her, flipping through the photographs is a bit like reliving history. With each image, nights that would be otherwise forgotten flood back into her memory.
"It's a little disturbing to see ten years of your life condensed to 500 pictures," she says. "I can see who I was hanging out with, where I went, what bands I saw. It makes you realize how much time has gone by."
Although she takes pictures almost every day, Lees sees herself as more of a documentarian than a photographer. She prefers an iPhone to a bulky camera, and isn't particularly worried about having the highest quality images. For her, taking pictures isn't so much about creating art as it is about recording the music scene that means so much to her. She shoots shows so that they will never be forgotten.
"I have a very strong instinct to document. Its like if I don't get this, no one will -- and then it will be gone forever. It's sort of an anxiety to document," Lees explains. "I don't have kids; if I had a baby there would be ten thousand pictures of a baby. Music is how I prioritize my life."