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?