Birds of Paradise: Talking to Photographer Lee O’Connor About Her New Book

Photo by Lee O'Connor for Birds of Paradise

Photographer Lee O’Connor’s portfolio is full of portraits of gorgeous women, many shot for one of the various fashion campaigns or editorials she’s worked on; O’Connor, in short, is no stranger to capturing beauty with her camera. And yet, with the advent of her new photo book Birds of Paradise, her portraits are perhaps more striking and more arresting, than any others she has shot. O’Connor began the project which wound up resulting in this book in 2009, when she decided to attempt to document the many highly individual, fascinating women she saw on the streets of her north Brooklyn neighborhood. The end result is a collection of portraits of 30 women who uniquely represent a time and place that will surely one day be as talked about and nostalgized as Greenwich Village of the 60s, or Berlin of the 30s. I spoke with O’Connor about the inspiration for her book, how north Brooklyn has changed in the past five years, and what it was like to go up to all those women and ask to photograph them. Tonight, O’Connor is celebrating the launch of her book with a part in Williamsburg, full of cocktails, music, and the chance to get your own portrait done by O’Connor.

Tell me a little bit about the inspiration for Birds of Paradise?
One of my favorite books of all time is August Sander’s Face of Our Time, where he documented the working class in 1930s Berllin, and I love those portraits and what he captured with them. His book is more political than what mine wound up being, but it still inspired me to go out and shoot people in my neighborhood. Especially in 2009, there were so many really colorful people walking around Williamsburg and Greenpoint, like they weren’t really pushed out yet. I mean, they were a bit, but they were still some. And I would just stumble upon the most interesting people, these people who expressed themselves visually through their dress. So I just started street scouting. I wanted an index of these people.

How did you come up with the name for the book?
The title is sort of a play on words, “birds” being a slang term for women, and “birds of paradise” because they’re all so colorful.

What was it about someone that made these women stand out to you?
Mainly just through what they were wearing. Or sometimes they had a face that I was really visually captivated by. They’re all really beautiful.

How do you approach people on the street? It feels like that would be the most difficult part of this!
I’m really shy so, you know, my heart would race every time I would approach someone on the street or run after them when they got off the subway. I would tell everyone it was a paid project, because I felt like they wouldn’t show up otherwise. And most of them were into it. I just told them to wear whatever it was that I saw them wearing on the street, and mostly they did that, or they would do something to improve upon their outfit. Most of them loved it; they were like, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” One woman I approached on the subway was like, “I can’t believe you came up to talk to me, most people are really intimidated by me.”

It’s interesting too with portraiture, because it can make people feel so vulnerable, and so exposed. Like, we’re all so used to manipulating our own images with selfie-culture right now, so it feels strange to put ourselves in the hands of someone else.
Right, that’s true. I wanted these people to feel really beautiful. I want them to feel epic, like the superheroes of their lives.

Compared to when you started the project, does Brooklyn seem less vibrant, less full of outrageous people now?
In my neighborhood it does. I feel like that style has gone away a bit. In my neighborhood it’s more homogenized. So I’m not being daily inspired. I feel like the project’s over, and I feel like maybe that’s because I’m not seeing anyone anymore. Or maybe it’s just because it’s been five years. And it’s over.

Yeah, but maybe it’s also a style thing. After all nobody wears trucker hats anymore.
Right, or rides those unicycles. Those unicycles were everywhere! Photography in essence is to preserve a time, like for posterity. And I really wanted to perform that moment in time, it was a real visual moment in history in New York. This will be so awesome to see in twenty or thirty years, see what those people wore. “Those hipsters, see what they all wore?”

Go check out Birds of Paradise tonight, and get your own portrait done by Lee O’Connor! Info below, with one update: The fun starts at 6pm!

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