Jes Lee

How it began…

It started with a photo assignment for myself…

In spring of 2018, after a winter of feeling stuck and a bit uninspired, I decided to create a photo assignment for myself to jump start my creativity. Years past I had done photo class assignments of photographing the same location multiple times over the course of a year and had enjoyed the idea. I decided to start there.

I needed to challenge myself to be alone…

I often hike and photograph with other people around. And I love this. But I felt it was time to try heading out on my own and see if it changed how I worked and thought about photographing. It was also a good challenge for me personally to spend a little more time with myself.

I started with my favorite locations….

I love Lake Superior. I grew up with regular road trips to its shores, and it remained a special place to me. Those familiar start parks and hikes seemed like the perfect place to return to regularly.

I set my timeline…

I wanted to be able to see the changes from one season to the next, the change in weather, and of course the changes in the lake. I decided that I would drive north to photograph once per month. I knew that I would be able to fit the trip into one day and not worry about staying somewhere over night. Going once a month would give me the flexibility to adjust dates according to weather and road conditions as well.

I picked my locations….

Four locations seemed like a great place to start, and allowed me to visit some of my favorites: Canal Park, Brighton Beach, Gooseberry Falls, and Tettegouche State Park. Tettegouche has long been one of my favorite places to sit and watch the lake. This was the furthest north I wanted to go, knowing I would still be able to make it there to photograph with adequate light during the short days of winter.

The technical choices:

I decided to go back to basics and photograph these locations with black and white film. This would also make it easy for me to develop the film myself. To make organizing negatives easier for myself, I decided to devote one roll of medium format film to each location. And of course, I would be taking my favorite camera, a Hasselblad 501 c/m with me.

I didn’t know what the end result would be…

I started out with this project mostly being a personal challenge to myself. I didn’t know what I would do with all of these images in the end. The main focus was on collecting them, getting myself into a creative habit again, and learning a bit about myself. Honestly, proving to myself that I could hike alone with my camera equipment and not die or get stuck somewhere like a helpless turtle was a big part of this.

And then….

About 1/2 way through this year long project, a photo friend asked to come with me. And through a days long conversation with her, it came to me that these images were meant to be layers. That they were meant to be part of a larger image, an image that showed what a year in that location was like. These images would show the ethereal nature of the passage of time. Everything clicked together.

After taking photos for a year, I started to work on the final images…

It was a long process figuring out on the first few locations how to layer all of these images together, what Photoshop settings to use: filters, opacity, image density, and lining up parts of the landscape. Once these details were worked out, my progress on the final images took off at a fevered pitch.

I realized that I didn’t want to stop with Lake Superior…

So I continued this project. In 2020-2021 I photographed 6 locations along the Mississippi River. This was started just after the stay-at-home orders were lifted, as my city was reacting to the murder of George Floyd. When I picked these locations, I didn’t know how much it would mean to me to be near by to home and my city during this year.

In July 2021 I started photographing Lake Mille Lacs. I am stopping at only 3 locations this time. The 6 locations along the Mississippi ended up being logistically draining with developing and scanning time. I wanted to take it a bit easier this time around. It has been fascinating watching the water and area around the lake change with the seasons.

Where to next?

I don’t know! If you have an idea of what Minnesota body of water I should photograph next, let me know in the comments!

The Year Long Portrait of Water

Perhaps the best place to start is to introduce myself and my project…


I am a photographer…


I am a photographer, documenting the memories of our landscapes. I photograph what we leave behind on this earth, what appears, what disappears, and what remains. Using my camera I document our fragile home, witness the changes, and attempt to tell her story.


“Water is mutable, flexible, adaptive, and persistent. It holds memory and structure. Water’s
structure allows it to work together as a unified system.” – Edgar Fabian Frias.


Much of my artwork focuses on water.


Our bodies of water hold the memory of the space they occupy, how that space has changed over the centuries, and how the surroundings have changed. Our water bodies hold the memory of our footprints on this earth, the memories of centuries of inhabitants within and without. Often at the center of very politically charged battles for usage rights and fossil fuels, our bodies of water are sources of life.


Photographing, documenting, and telling the stories of Minnesota’s bodies of water is an ongoing project for me.


This project began by documenting a year of Lake Superior’s memories. These photographs were taken with medium format film from the same vantage points at four locations along the north shore. I photographed each location once per month from May 2018 through May 2019. To create the final images, I layer these photographs on top of one another.


Through this process I create a compilation image of one full year of memories of that water and land.


The final images have an eerie and ghostly quality to them, at once showing a brief moment in the lifespan of the water, and hinting at what may be yet to come.


Lake Superior was only the beginning.


From May 2020 through May 2021 I photographed a year of a portion of the Mississippi River. Like with the Lake Superior project, I identified six locations between South St. Paul and Elk River, and photographed these locations once per month. I completed photographing May 2021 and am currently creating the compilation images of these places. Last summer I began photographing Mille Lacs Lake in the same way, and will complete photographing the lake in July 2022.


The grant project…


I just received a Minnesota State Arts Board Creative Support Grant to continue work on this project. I will collect these photographs and compilations and form them into a series of hand bound artist books, documenting each location and it’s story. Books are accessible, intimate, and give the viewer a tactile connection with the work. They can be shown in a variety of settings. Most of all, they must be held and touched by the viewer for the full experience. This gives the viewer a more intimate, tactile connection with the work. The grant period runs from January 2022-December 2022. During that time I will be hosting a variety of virtual events showcasing the creation of the books and discussions of our local bodies of water, their meanings for our people and neighborhoods, their importance to our climate. These virtual events will be recorded when possible and shared in this space as well.


I hope you will follow along on this journey.


I will be sharing many looks behind the scenes, and sharing bits of my artistic process. I hope you join me, I hope you ask questions, and I hope this makes you think a bit differently about the bodies of water near you.