Tuan Lee: Photographer with a pirate's heart
Tuan Lee was born in Vietnam but raised in Florissant. He works in St. Louis as well as Los Angeles. He’s a commercial photographer but his photos may soon also hang in an art gallery.
Swashbuckling across a diverse array of worlds, Lee relishes planning the next photographic adventure with his creative mates.
“I love to collaborate,” Lee said. “When you assemble a team to accomplish a certain mission, you feel like pirates.”
Restaurant opens doors
In 1975, when Lee was 3 years old, he and his mother immigrated to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon. Through the Florissant church that sponsored them, Lee’s mother met his future stepfather, who folded Lee into a staunchly practical German family.
Though young Lee enjoyed playing violin, drawing and fooling around with a Polaroid, his artistic efforts weren’t framed as possible vocations.
“It was like, 'If you don’t know what you’re going to do, then join the military',” Lee said. “Other than that, then you become an accountant, something pragmatic.”
Neighborhood families reinforced the family credo.
“Fathers were pipe fitters and worked on roofs, had construction or lawn-mowing businesses,” Lee said.
After graduating from McCluer North in 1991, Lee rebelled by majoring in English and minoring in history at Mizzou, a concentration that “pretty much guarantees you a job in the restaurant business,” Lee quipped.
But as so often happens, the imperfect job -- bar manager at Clayton’s Cafe Mira -- led him to the person who would point him toward his destiny: local photographer Michael Eastman. As regulars, Eastman and his wife Gayle took a liking to Lee, and Michael Eastman took him on as studio assistant.
“I did everything from taking out the trash to handing him lenses,” Lee said.
Magic on a shoestring
It wasn’t long before Lee, who's now 39, began to understand that, through photography, he could create and sustain an “ideas-driven life” that included travel.
“One of the early jobs we did was for Southwestern Bell, and the job was a big road trip around the state of Missouri, taking photos,” Lee said. “And I was like, ‘This guy’s life is fantastic.’”
Through Eastman and on his own, Lee immersed himself in the art and science of photography. He began managing Eastman’s studio and then getting his own gigs, something Michael and Gayle Eastman fully supported.
“He was a great producer of all my shoots,” Michael Eastman said. “I asked him what he wanted to do. He said, ‘I think I want to do fashion,’ and he’s a hip dude so that made sense.”
Though shades of Eastman can be seen in his occasional use of horses and bold-palette backgrounds, Lee's style is his own.
“He found his voice very quickly; he’s not hanging on Michael’s coattails,” Gayle Eastman said.
In the mid-2000s, a chance meeting at a 33 Wine Shop in Lafayette Square helped Lee break out on his own. Wine-enhanced conversations with an art director led to his working on a campaign for ScholarShop, a resale outfit supporting local students, a relationship that continues today.
Hard work produced more clients, along with continued networking.
“His people skills are so authentic,” Gayle Eastman said. “He’s not schmoozing; he’s just so personable, so genuinely concerned.”
Lee soon discovered that working on small, successful shoots endeared him to emerging art directors.
“They’ll be like, ‘Oh, I remember when I hired him. He made me look so good,’” Lee said.
Lee’s resourcefulness impressed Los Angeles art director David Hsia, who collaborated with Lee on numerous projects while in St. Louis. Particularly memorable is a shoestring-budget, film noir-style fashion shoot at the Roberts Orpheum Theater several years ago.
Hsia wondered how they’d pull off the dramatically lit scenes he envisioned. But Lee nailed it with some stray cloth, a copper box and other pieces of metal and a spray mist bottle.
“With one assistant and a couple of lights, Tuan was able to deliver a big Hollywood look without us having any money,” Hsia said. “It was amazing.”
California in focus
As his career grew, LA came into focus as the hub of the commercial photography industry. Last year, he relocated there to take advantage of the area’s perks.
Chief among them is the availability of talent. The pool of LA models has both the sameness -- the “look” -- and the differences -- the ethnic diversity -- that advertisers want, and in massive quantity.
“Millions and millions of people are there for that industry, specifically,” Lee said. “And they have a lot of experience because they’ve worked so much.”
Then, there’s the West Coast weather.
“You can shoot 12 months out of the year. Out of 365 days, there are more than 300 usable days outside, every year,” Lee said.
A recent location search for client Brown Shoe’s Naya brand exemplifies LA’s advantages, Lee said. The upscale, eco-friendly footwear is represented by a character known as the Naya Woman. For the fall campaign, ad execs wanted her to appear in a vineyard. That it would be shot in spring was one challenge.
A 50-percent chance of rain during the shooting schedule ruled out any Missouri vineyard, along with the state’s too-small grape leaves. A privately owned vineyard in Malibu emerged as the perfect spot, offering not only rolling hills and ideal weather, but the right-size leaves, thanks to a 12-month growing season.
Post-production work turned the background leaves from green to yellow, orange and brown, but changing their size wasn’t practical. If needed, fall leaves in all sizes and shapes, and other autumnal objects, were also readily available in LA-area prop houses.
Now, the majority of Lee’s time is spent in LA, where many clients and his significant other, production assistant Jennifer Hengst, are located. In December, Lee plans to re-up the lease on his St. Louis studio space on Olive Street for another year but after that, he’s not sure.
“Hopefully, I’d like for all my clients who work with me to work with me in LA,” Lee said.
Unwrapping a gift
Even as Lee pulls away from St. Louis, a prospective project may further anchor him here, at least artistically.
“There are a couple of things he’s noticed in my book that could work well, some faces. We’re still working it out, we’ll see,” Lee said. “It might just start off with a suite of images maybe just in one of his smaller rooms.”
The exhibition raises questions about the line -- if there is one -- between commercial and art photography.
“People debate that all the time,” Lee said. “Commercial photographers can transcend that line provided the client they’re shooting for and the art director all have the same goals, and then it can happen -- you can really make some iconic images.”
Another activity that Lee is elevating to an art is his cooking. He's currently tweaking a fried chicken recipe and also working toward rivaling Eastman's famous barbecue ribs. When Lee's not in the kitchen or the studio, or on location, he and Hengst explore California's mountains, deserts and coastline as well as L.A.'s urban landscape.
Along the way, he enthusiastically looks forward to the next commercial assignment, and the next and the next: “More and more and more projects,” he said.
Getting a creative brief is like “unwrapping a gift,” Lee said.
“It’s always a surprise,” Lee said. "And it’s like, ‘OK, what’s the next surprise and where’s that going to lead, and what’s going to happen with that?’”
And no matter where the project leads, it's the freewheeling, collaborative energy that floats Lee's boat, er, ship.
Summing it up, Lee offered a quote from Steve Jobs: "It's more fun to be a pirate than join the navy."