H. Lee
Kehrer Verlag, 2014

Reviewed by Leo Hsu


The forests and marijuana farms of Humboldt County, as they appear in H. Lee’s Grassland, are lush and primordial.   The Emerald Triangle, comprised of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity Counties in Northern California, is the largest cannabis growing region in the United States.  In Lee’s pictures we feel the succulence of the leaves, the weight of fog, the coolness of the undergrowth, and the command of the sun at the magic hours around dusk and dawn.  The pictures are crisp and loamy with texture.  Lee’s photographs visualize cannabis as natural, of the earth, humbly tended by people on small-scale farms.  Their hands are smudged with dirt and their labors appear as acts of devotion.

Grassland considers two possibly contradictory stories about marijuana that intersect in Humboldt County. One story is about the cultivation of cannabis as a return to nature and to a simpler way of life; the other (less visible but still very much a part of this book) is about the growing acceptance of marijuana in the United States in recent years, and its impact on farming.  Grassland is a timely reimagination and visualization of what marijuana might stand for at a moment in which its social and legal status is changing.   As such, it stands in contrast to popular representations of pot in American society, where the focus has been on the representation of consumers.

Cannabis is not like other crops, as a well chosen epigram by Carl Sagan underscores: “It would be wryly interesting if in human history the cultivation of marijuana led generally to the invention of agriculture, and thereby to civilization.”  The story of marijuana farming is not just about returning to the land; in Lee’s photographs, the iconic leaf appears almost as a totem.   For decades the area has attracted a variety of growers who have chosen to live apart and away from the larger populations where their products are in demand: “avid smokers, those who believed in legalization, city folk who came to cash in, second-generation kids who never left, those passionate for permaculture, and back-to-the-landers aiming for an alternative lifestyle who earned just enough to scrape by.”

But in the world beyond these farms, marijuana’s status has changed rapidly in recent years, as evidenced by legalization in Washington and Colorado, and to the increased use of marijuana in medical contexts in other states.  For the farmers, the decriminalization of pot leads to a drop in prices; little surprise that the growers of Humboldt County celebrated when California’s Proposition 19, which would have allowed the state to regulate and tax marijuana-related activities, failed in 2010.  Lee’s photos are therefore also a work of salvage, depicting a community at a moment when massive change seems inevitable.

These two stories about marijuana – the bodily work of cultivation, performed close to nature, and the increasingly legalized product -  seem destined to compete in their assertions of what defines cannabis.  Both stories are inscribed into Lee’s photographs, in the verdant landscapes, in the portraits of farm workers, with their nearly uniform beards, hoodies and dirty pants, and in the detailed descriptions of diffusely lit growing areas.  Is the care and consideration of small-scale farming, where farmers enjoy an almost sacred stewardship of the plant, compromised by lower prices, and the subsequent need to produce larger yields?  What will happen to the ways in which growers who self-identify as outlaw and anti-establishment think of themselves if paranoia and suspicion give way to regulation and competition?

In its edit, the book presents, roughly, a year’s growing, harvest and preparation for shipment, and presents marijuana as a cash crop, an agricultural business.  However, while the images in Grassland describe the steps of a process, they are, individually, studies of the cannabis plant in its different incarnations as it is transformed for human consumption.  It’s this emphasis, this driving focus in every image, that gives the audience the opportunity to consider both narratives together.

Overwhelmingly, though, Lee’s photographs tell a story of farmers living in harmony with their natural surroundings.   The small farms that Lee, who had never used marijuana, encountered when she first visited the region in 2004 were modest and hidden.  Even six years later in 2010, when she made these pictures, her images display a sense of wonder.  Her pictures have a sharp clarity, and she has a canny ability to visualize cannabis in a way that acknowledges deep cultural associations –  spiritual, medicinal, natural – without using the existing, baggage-laden visual language surrounding pot.  

Notably, the book is an extremely satisfying presentation of this body of work.  There is a consistency in the look of the pictures that is well-served by the turning of pages.  While a large number of images might seem repetitious in an online gallery or on a gallery wall, the layout of the book invites a well-paced and tactile experience appropriate to the feel of the pictures, and the design serves the content.  Very readable essays by writer Emily Brady and former High Times editor Glenn O’Brien provide context as does a well-captioned photo index at the end of the book. 

All of these elements combine to produce a coherent visual narrative that is feelingful and well-grounded.  The book offers a suggestion for how we might think about marijuana as agriculture, even as it its dimensions are changing.  But it is, at the same time, an assertion of cannabis’s place in our cultural imagination, and makes visible the aura surrounding marijuana.

H. Lee is a pseudonym.

Leo Hsu is a photographer, writer and photography instructor, based in Pittsburgh, PA.
Contact Leo here.

You can purchase the book directly from the artist here