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Interview: H. Lee on Grassland

Interview H. Lee on Grassland Sarah Bradley talks to the photographer of Grassland, a stunning collection of photographs documenting marijuana cultivation in Humboldt County, released under the pseudonym H. Lee.

Grassland. By H. Lee.
Kehrer Verlag, 2014.
We’ve long joked about marijuana, but the medicinal, recreational and perhaps mystical plant has become a serious part of the national dialogue like never before. Overwhelming legalization seems to be only a matter of time, and in the few states where laws have already changed a formally covert part of the national economy and agricultural system is suddenly finding itself exposed. Nowhere is this transition more apparent than Northern California’s Humboldt County. Though craftily hidden, the well-established marijuana cultivation of the area became legend. Glimpses into this world could be found in a scant few places, but new laws have allowed for bigger reveals. The growers of Humboldt County are now at a turning point, moving from a long ingrained culture of concealment to a community cautiously testing openness. 

Photographer H. Lee spent years visiting Humboldt County before ever taking a photograph of the industry that made it a household name, but as marijuana laws loosened, it became apparent that the timing was right for the story to be told. Lee took particular care to respect the privacy of her subjects and not overstep the trust she had built up over her years visiting this community. As a result, her photographs occasionally have the tender feel of a stolen glance — few faces are seen and Lee protected her subjects' privacy by concealing her own — H. Lee a pseudonym. The resulting photobook, Grassland, is structured around the growing and harvest seasons, bring us into the fields, drying houses and trim rooms. Thumbnails with captions end the book, giving context to what we are seeing, but the raw beauty captured in many of the images keep the book from feeling like a straight documentary project. Lee’s photographs function as documents, but also revel in the allure of the landscape and small moments of cultivation.

Grassland. By H. LeeKehrer Verlag, 2014.

Though intimate in its details, Grassland will always have a legacy beyond the specifics of its subject matter. As Blake Andrews concludes in his review of Grassland for photo-eye Blog, "With rapidly changing societal attitudes and laws concerning marijuana, this book may become quickly dated. The U.S. seems headed for wider acceptance of pot and some variety of legalization. A decade from now when marijuana is grown openly, taxed, and manufactured into cigarettes, the quiet backwoods secrecy of Grassland may take on a nostalgic haze. Ironically it may be seen as a window back to the glory years before legalization crippled Humboldt County's underground economy." 

I was happy to have the chance to ask Lee some questions about the project and book, as well as what it's like to release work anonymously. —Sarah Bradley


Grassland. By H. LeeKehrer Verlag, 2014.
Sarah Bradley:     You spent a long time visiting Humboldt County before starting to photograph it. Tell us a bit about the evolution of your relationship with the place. What made you decide to start the project?

H. Lee:     The first week I spent in Humboldt, I remember thinking, I must make a documentary about this place one day; it was the most unique and unusual niche of the world I had ever witnessed. That wonder and journalistic inquiry and perspective stayed with me throughout my years there, as I remained a sort of outsider. I spent one full season there one year, and it was during that period that I started documenting in images. In the beginning, it was solely to practice taking pictures. But as I grew as a photographer, so did the idea of Grassland. This was the year that prop 19 hit the ballot and change was thick in the air. I had a sense that I was documenting something not only for myself, but possibly something bigger.

SB:     The story of marijuana cultivation in Humboldt County is big — from techniques of farming to the secrecy and hidden language it developed, to the varying opinions of a community whose way of life is shifting due to changing laws — and on and on. What was your strategy for approaching such a complex story?

HL:     I wanted to photograph what I learned — about the plant itself, the growing of it, and the community surrounding it. I knew that my eyes were much like the general public's — ignorant to the goings on in Northern California, had never seen a sizable pot plant in person, let alone a massive garden. I didn't know what a trim scene was or that even many people I knew came to Humboldt at some point in their life to make extra cash during trim season. The only strategy I had was to photograph daily life of a growing season.

Grassland. By H. LeeKehrer Verlag, 2014.

SB:     Tell us about your choice to release this work under a pseudonym. Was this a decision you made early on in the process?

HL:     Growing pot in Humboldt County is a very delicate and discreet career, even if everyone around you is doing it. And it requires secrecy and privacy; it did in 2011. In order for me to get permission to photograph where I did, I promised the growers and workers, and anyone else on to whom I turned the camera that I wouldn't use my real name.

Grassland on press
SB:     Anytime you put work out into the world it's a representation of yourself — your aesthetic, your thoughts, your vision — and sometimes showing work can feel like an intimate reveal of the self. Have you felt anything different about this work given that it's not directly attached to you? Do you feel more detached from it?

HL:     It's been interesting — the pseudonym — both in terms of getting the work out in the world, as well as for personal reasons. The ego, in a way, is gone, for it has to be. The project is not "about me," at least publicly, although it is very much, as you suggest, "an intimate reveal of the self." It has been cathartic in many ways, bookmarking a chapter of my life, as well as expressing personal growth, which resulted from my exposure to Humboldt and the pot-growing community. But, yes, I am definitely detached, watching the H. Lee persona quietly spread the images and book around, not too wrapped up in its "success" or "failure." I can't be. And that's a good practice.

SB:     Many of your photographs have people in them, but we see few faces. Was it difficult to navigate the line between respecting the privacy of your subjects and getting what you needed as a photographer?

HL:     When I discovered fellow Critical Mass finalist Maureen Drennan's amazing project, Meet Me in the Green Glen, I was well into Grassland, and nearly cried. Hers is a gorgeous and poetic portrayal of one pot farmer; intimately illustrating his story — like the story of so many in Humboldt, and one that I just couldn't tell. It was a challenge indeed and made me push to find an intimacy in my images in other ways. I would have loved to have added portraits of growers and where and how they live.

Grassland. By H. LeeKehrer Verlag, 2014.

SB:     Has it continued to influence your shooting?

HL:     Yes, in fact, I think it did influence how I see now. I just kept looking. and then looked more, trying to see from different perspectives, details, more close ups, slowing down some, and just being more patient and present. I tried to let the scene speak to me, instead of attacking it, if that makes sense.

Grassland on press
SB:     Can you talk about the process of putting the book together? Did you think about presenting the work as a book while you were shooting?

HL:     I didn't think about much while I was shooting, except shooting. When I started to show the work at portfolio reviews, however, I knew immediately that I wanted to make a book; that this was an important and really timely project and subject matter that I wanted to get out in the world. It's a story, a historical one, and I thought it would best be told and presented in book form — not a High Times look at pot plants, but a more artful and beautiful presentation of what so many don't see in Northern California, or even know exists. So I mocked up a book of the initial images I had made with a friend and designer, Pascale Willi, and started shopping it around. As the book took shape, so did the story I wanted to tell, and I returned last year to get the images that I thought were missing. It's a huge subject that begs many questions. Grassland is just a tiny snapshot in the world of cannabis cultivation.


Deluxe and Collector's Editions
H. Lee's Grassland has just been released from Kehrer Verlag. Signed copies are available to order.

Grassland is also available in two limited editions — a deluxe edition of 100, which includes a signed copy presented in a hemp slipcase with a choice of one 8"x10" limited edition prints, and a collector's edition of 25 comprised of a signed book and folio of three 8"x10" prints contained in a hemp covered box with a secret compartment and accoutrements. More info here.