House of Charm
House of Charm is the ongoing portrait of Lee, a woman whose eccentricities conceal a beauty and intelligence that most people do not easily see
In 2003, the photographer Jessica Eve Rattner moved into a house in Berkeley, California, around the corner from an old woman named Lee.
At first, Rattner knew Lee as a shopping-cart pushing raider of recycling bins, a dishevelled old woman with foot-tall dreadlocked hair. But a quick exchange in the driveway, while Lee scoured for recycled cans, changed everything. Instead of dismissing her outright, Rattner became smitten by her intelligence and quirky charm. She asked Lee if it was okay to photograph her, and to her surprise, she agreed.
At first, like others, I knew her as the neighbourhood “bag lady,” a dread-locked raider of recycling bins who pushed her shopping cart through the early morning streets. Lee’s dilapidated home stood out in a neighbourhood where even the most modest homes were valued at half a million dollars. She had neither heat nor running water. The roof and floors were rotting; many windows were broken; and the rooms were choked with recycling, found objects, and cat feces. The condition of her house was — and continues to be — what most would consider uninhabitable.
Most people perceive Lee as “crazy,” someone to be avoided. Few get close enough to learn that while she is eccentric, she is also intelligent, charming, and self-assured. And perhaps most remarkably, that she leads the life she chooses to — one for which she is neither apologetic or ashamed.
Rattner has long been interested in ideas of beauty, happiness, and mental health — especially as they relate to women. In a culture obsessed with youth, materialism, and physical appearance, Lee’s apparent indifference to these things sets her apart. Lee will soon turn eighty. Is Lee crazy to be happy in conditions others could not tolerate? Is something wrong with her? Who decides?
Lee had been a model when she was young—a shoe model for fancy department stores, primarily. “She has these teeny-tiny feet,” Rattner said. Lee was once professionally beautiful, a person to be seen. But when Rattner met her, Lee was a person who was often overlooked—she was the neighbourhood “bag lady.” Lee would make rounds of the houses in the area, collecting cans and other scraps from trash cans. Her house, which she’d lived in for decades, was an infamous mess, piled high with who knows what. She was, “definitely a ‘fixture’ ”—a word we often use, sentimentally but also dismissively, about the eccentric elderly. People were mostly fond of Lee, but didn’t actually engage with her much. She was part of the local patina.
“I’m not always very good at keeping to myself,” Rattner said. Over time, she started talking to Lee. “She has lots of opinions. I was growing a garden, and she knows everything about plants and animals. She would give me advice about my plants. She just knew things that other people didn’t know.” They became friends. Rattner had recently taken up photography and suggested to Lee that they do a project together documenting Lee’s life. Lee liked the idea and proved a natural subject, going on with her life as though the camera weren’t there. That was ten years ago. Rattner has been taking pictures of Lee ever since. The photo series, which is ongoing, is called “House of Charm,” named after a school where Lee studied modelling when she was young.
Lee lives in a condition that many would consider squalor. She has no heat, no running water, and has to use the bathroom at the nearby Safeway. Hoarding is her lifestyle; her floors piled high with relics collecting dust from her long, full life. One of these artifacts includes a diploma, carefully preserved, of a finishing school she attended more than 60 years ago, called House of Charm. According to Rattner, Lee refers to it often and fondly. Her experience there clearly had a huge impact on her sense of self.
Once she had known Lee for a while House of Charm seemed like an obvious title for their burgeoning project. It might seem ironic, given her ramshackled home and unkempt appearance. Rattner argues, “Lee’s essence and her way of being in the world are, in my eyes, infused with a beauty or charm that run deeper than manners and make-up.” Everyone has some kind of charm if we stop and really pay attention.
Rattner is successful at integrating herself into an uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory. Her photos are both intimate and thoughtful, capturing a portrait of an aging woman, in all her eccentricities. Over time, Rattner’s relationship with Lee evolved from curious observer to concerned friend.
“I think that time and intimacy have mostly made me admire Lee more. I don’t mean to glamorize Lee or the way she lives. But my admiration of the intelligence and fierce independence that first drew me to her has only grown.”
Many of Rattner’s photos are taken in the interior of Lee’s house. It is severely dilapidated—cobwebs and shreds of old floral wallpaper hang down from the walls like Spanish moss. Her possessions stand in mounds and piles: old newspapers and empty food containers, boxes and bottles and bags. But points of brightness poke through: a pretty hat, a colourful decoration, a bouquet of artificial flowers. We’ve seen this sort of scene before, in “house of horrors” tabloid stories, or in reality shows about hoarder interventions. But Rattner frames Lee’s life with a compassionate attention. Lee’s hair, which is piled in twisted mats at the back of her head, looks artful in its construction; light streams golden through the lacy dirt on the windows; piles of junk take on the lushness of mountain landscapes. In one photo, Lee takes a nap in her room amid piles of clothes and papers, nearly disappearing into the clutter; in another, she prepares for the Christmas party at a local pub, looking stately and delicate, maybe even a little vain, as she carefully arranges her bright pink dress coat and her flowered hat in a spotted mirror.
After a decade spent photographing Lee, Rattner considers her like a family member, and so Rattner was there to assist when, last year, Lee was hit by a car and had to be moved out of her house. She spent a long time in physical rehab and, just recently, moved into a new house with one of her sons. It was a radical change for someone who had lived so independently for so long. “It’s as though a switch has flipped,” in her new place, Lee has more or less stopped accumulating things. “She’s a person who has, in a way, lost everything,” Rattner said. “But it’s not something she talks about or laments.”
Lee knows that Rattner’s photos of her are sometimes displayed or published, but it’s not something that she asks about or seems to care much about. Rattner, on the other hand, says that she gets “a little scared” about sending these images out into the world. She hopes to question the labels—labels such as “crazy” or “ill”—that are often affixed to unusual people and can act as barriers to connection and understanding. But she worries her project might not always be received that way.
“I’m devastated when people find the photos obscene or disgusting. I know that some people find the pictures troubling,” she said. “Photos aren’t the whole truth. And maybe these photos are more my truth than Lee’s.” She added, “I don’t know if people will see this as flattering. But I hope they see that it comes from respect and love.”