Serendipity manifests in funny ways. Photojournalist Leslie Lyons experienced it recently in the form of a Maker’s Mark billboard she spotted while walking in Manhattan in November.
“Born in Kentucky, raised in New York,” it read.
Those New Yorkers knew what time it was, and so did Lyons. By December, she had a house on Longest Avenue.
Homesickness was only part of the reason. Her photos for LIFE magazine of the post-Katrina hysteria and tragedies at East Jefferson Hospital in Metairie, La., compelled her to make “We, The People,” a photo book of American moments. Her work shooting influential musicians led to “Talking Back,” a collection of portraits of pop-culture icons.
Because both are geographically ubiquitous, Lyons could work from anywhere. “Louisville felt like the place to be — both psychologically and geographically,” she said in a news release.
In an interview last week, she said she’s still getting used to the city’s car culture (she’s already been in one wreck — thankfully, it wasn’t her fault) and is on the hunt for a slice of pizza that can compete with Manhattan’s, but she’s quickly fallen in love with WFPK-FM.
Lyons, a University of Kentucky graduate who helped start its student-run radio station, WRFL, moved to New York because it made sense: She had a photojournalism internship, and because of her work with the station, she attended the College Music Journal’s radio convention every year.
“I lived in a squat in the East Village” during the internship, she said, but that was all it took to hook Lyons. She moved to Harlem and set about competing for work in a highly competitive market.
“You just have to position yourself in line and hope that somebody throws a rock and they hit you,” she says. “I hooked up with a couple of key people that kept me in mind.”
Her biggest break in entertainment photography came when music publicity firm Big Hassle asked her to shoot The Strokes at a New York club called The Mercury Lounge. Big Hassle had sent her a copy of This Is It, and halfway through the second song, Lyons seized the opportunity.
As long as she could do it her way. “I didn’t want to hire a stylist,” she says. “The music was so raw, so I asked if I could shoot them as soon as they got offstage.”
When the band (and Lyons) arrived in London to play the New Music Express Festival, her photographs were plastered everywhere.
Soon, representatives for Argentinean folkster Jose Gonzalez needed promo shots. Lyons had an idea for Gonzalez to open his T-shirt and draw a heart on his chest with red lipstick. His manager and publicist weren’t so sure.
“It ended up being his lead publicity picture,” she says.
Her site, www.leslielyons.com, boasts images of Sonic Youth, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and the famous grandmother of chill, Julee Cruise, who sang the theme song on “Twin Peaks.”
“When I work with bands, I really want to become part of them, and that’s why every shoot is different,” said Lyons, who favors film over digital. “When everybody started shooting digital, I started shooting on 4×5-inch Polaroids.” A serendipitous choice, surely.
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