Profiles – Thaniel Ion Lee – Photographer

Submitted Photo

Submitted Photo

Thaniel Ion Lee of New Albany, Ind., has enjoyed critical success here and abroad, and has showcased his photography and paintings numerous times around the region and on either coast. But he says he doesn’t sell many pieces. “I am the worst artist when it comes to sales. I guess mostly it’s the subject matter; it’s a bit harsh. I think it’s because I’m just blunt, and it’s hard to sell blunt.” 

Lee, 32, admits he has a dark sense of humor, and his bluntness is particularly evident in his self-portrait photography, which has garnered acclaim from a number of circles, from New York to the Czech Republic. Lee was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which has left him with limited use of his arms, legs and fingers. His “In My Skin: Self-Portraits” exhibit featured graphic black-and-white photographs of his body.

“At first, I wanted to document some scars I had” as a result of numerous surgeries related to his condition, he explains. “Then, after a while, I got really picky about the photographs (and took more). I showed some people and they talked me into exhibiting them.”

His artist statement from the self-portrait series includes this passage: “In this world of plastic surgery shows, model search television programs, fake talent shows and unreal reality TV, I attempt to show a body that cannot change, a body that no amount of plastic surgery will turn into a supermodel, a body that is not seen in pop culture magazines or MTV.”

His disability has been confining at times — “It’s a bit of a hassle to network,” he says — but it has also given him purpose on many levels: “I guess it’s been a good thing in that it gave me something to discuss. It forced me to think outside the box.”

Lee has a number of artistic interests besides photography — he is currently working on a video project and is toying with a large text piece and even some performance art. He hopes to showcase at least one, if not all, of these works in early 2009. He also embarked on another project:, an ongoing project that includes comprehensive listings of local artists, galleries and more.

Lee also paints, and his most recent show at Swanson Reed included several paintings. While he veered away from that particular medium for a while, he admits he paints only when creative inspiration strikes, which can be at almost any time. “As of late, I haven’t had a lot of ideas that would work,” he says. “That being said, I just bought a bunch of canvas, so I’ll have to do something eventually.” —Kevin Gibson