Name: Alexis Desaulniers-Lea
Hustle: AlexisD.Lea Photography
Buy her an iced long black with agave at: New Day Rising in Brunswick East
On the speakers – Erykah Badu, Rosalia, the Euphoria Soundtrack
Fave Melbourne Fashion: Goo Life Clothing, Sass and Body Co, XX Flos
Find her on a Friday at: The Butterfly Club, The Tote, Cherry Bar
Ever wondered what life is like behind the camera? Our reality is constructed by a fast moving montage of images that we know nothing about the true context of. There are many reasons why I chose to reach out to Alexis D.Lea – her extraordinary photography was just one of them. As Founder of Cat Scratch studio, Creative Director of Archer Magazine and content creator for Passionfruit Shop, her tireless work to open up safe spaces for creative expression for exceptional individuals extends far beyond photography, but it is where it all began.
“My twin sister and I were born in Montreal, Canada but moved around a lot as my parents worked in the arts,” says Lex.
“My Dad took us to music gigs early on and mum gave me an original 80s Polaroid camera when I was 13 that she used in the costume department on sets, and that was it, I was addicted.”
“My sister and I started off experimenting with shooting in graveyards on film – we really found our groove there. There’s always a graveyard no matter where you live,” she says.
“Then it was all about exploring new places, seeing how my emerging identity fit into them; self portraits, taking pictures of friends.”
“I connected to the burlesque and drag scene when I was at university in Vancouver. Next to Seattle, it’s the rainiest city in North America. The amount of coffee drinking is insane. It’s definitely an indoor city; like Naarm/Melbourne in winter.”
“The Vancouver burlesque scene opened diffusional doors to the kink and fetish community, where I found myself exploring my art, relationship dynamics and structures and my body and pleasure spectrum. A friend of mind said if you like a good striptease and are exploring sexuality and sensuality, you should try it out. It was like I was walking into somewhere that felt like home. The people I met were from everywhere; all different backgrounds and gender identities. Something clicked. I felt so much encouragement celebrating all bodies and ways of expression. It just turned me the fuck on. I realised that this was the kind of energy I desired to photograph. Not just the front of house sparkles, but the story behind the stage which I always felt was equally as magical since I was a kid, if not more so.
These were pivotal moments in her emerging career. She thanks Lola Frost, April O’Peel, Cherry On Top and Crystal Precious and her strong networks of fabulous Canadian babes who helped to lay the foundations for a career that she later exported to Naarm/Melbourne and used to inspire the core values of her new photography studio.
Scratching the surface
“I kicked off Cat Scratch Studio to respond to the need for more affordable community spaces where people feel safe to create images. I was so overwhelmed by the consistent stories I heard for over a decade about people rocking up to shoot with a predatory male photographer and being assaulted, verbally abused, propositioned or objectified. When I found myself in the position to open my own studio, it was with the intention of creating an inclusive space for artistic expression.”
“Film sets, studios, photo pits and photographic spaces were and still are very much are heavily dominated by white cis-men in my personal experiences. It’s changing and these shifts are creating so much more opportunities for everyone else, it’s inspiring to see.”
“I am compelled to create images that are provocatively vulnerable and personal but that tell a story through colour, texture, and mood. My focus is based in conceptual editorial work, live music/burlesque/cabaret, nudes and portraiture.”
When Lex and I caught up she was putting the finishing touches to a shoot she did late last year with Themme Fatale.
“This shoot was a dream as it spawned so many different storytelling ideas from the initial seed. They started exploring clown makeup as part of the identity that relates to being the leader of a cabaret or circus show, mixed with the vulnerability of what you don’t see behind the stage. We talked about the concept and ways to develop it. They had a dream team in mind to bring the creative concept to life. We explored the idea of slowly dismantling the idea of
performance through art, starting out as a queer Joan of Arc with a shield as the leader of the revolution, and ending exposed and vulnerable. The crew was myself, Themme Fatale, Mads Colvin, who is an incredible collector of chainmail, armour and other speciality items, and Lydia Legs who assisted and modelled too. The truly beautiful thing about this project is that it evolved and changed through the layers, story, colour and texture it manifested into something totally different to what we had expected in the beginning. This is the kind of stuff that gets me up in the morning.”
This comes from a non-conventional style of shooting. Plenty of photographers have a one stop shop, shooting style, using the same lighting and colour. In an out in an hour is not Lex’s style.
“Each photoshoot is part of a collaborative creative process. I work with each collaborator on a mood board prior to their shoot and do lots of lighting tests and experimenting well before the shoot date so I can try something a little bit different everytime. I leave a lot of wiggle room on the day for the shoot to evolve into spaces and places we might not have anticipated. Even the most seasoned model is always nervous, even if it’s subconsciously. I like to unravel the vulnerability and see how we can turn it into art, how we can work with our bodies, our anxiety, our insecurities instead of pushing it down or fighting against it. These things can add story, layers and authenticity to an image if we don’t spend energy hiding it and instead find ways of embracing it.”
Before the kink and fetish doors opened, Lex was cutting her teeth on live music gigs, battling it out in the photo pit to capture images of Shirley Manson and Jewel; with a deep heart connection to the backstage music
“One of my favourite shoots recently was at a recording studio with Cash Savage and the Last Drinks. It’s always really interesting to get an insight into the intimacy of the recording studio that not many get the chance to see. It’s a really magical place.”
Lex’s creative energies extend far beyond photography. After responding to a Gumtree ad over seven years ago, she landed a volunteer role at Naarm/Melbourne based sexuality, gender and identity publication Archer Magazine. Just under a decade later she is now their Creative Director.
“I’d just moved to Melbourne after travelling Australia for a year. I met the now publisher, Amy Middleton, in a cosy pub. In Canada it would be unheard of to go to a pub for a job interview. I loved Melbourne already.”
First published in print in 2015 and now with a website that you can lose yourself in well beyond your coffee break, Archer has built and grown with the communities it represents and really does stand alone as a one of a kind publication. Its aesthetic is as individualistic as Cat Scratch studio, opening up space for marginalised voices to tell their story in words and art, with themes from the past year including First Nations and Disability.
“When it first debuted overseas in the USA, some stockists weren’t sure which section they should place the magazine in and threatened to put it in a plastic bag in the porn section, which of course hinders sales as it gets lost in the mix. It’s not seen as a “lifestyle publication” as it has nudity and discusses sex. But it also does not warrant being censored and marginalised and should be an accessible publication, as it spotlights stories that cover so much more than just sex.”
“We are encouraged by the data from our online traffic and print magazine that so many folks are able to access Archer Magazine more than ever before.”
Lex’s newest gig is at everyone’s favourite place to rinse some cash, Passionfruit: The Sensuality Shop.
Passionfruit is unique as an adult shop. It couldn’t be any further away from the fluorescent lighting, sticky floors and toxic male gaze of SexyLand. It’s a beautiful, sensually lit shop with a calm, inclusive ambience that encourages you to unlock what lays below your surface.
From queer lit, to sexual health products, the shop sells a lot more than the trademark luxe bondage themed lingerie you covet when you are walking past the shop. There’s outerwear, sex toys, literature and erotic novels. And the recent work Lex has been doing with the team on their socials includes tasty visual bites from sex education to lingerie styling vids.
“The staff are super helpful, but also give you space to browse” says Lex.
So how did it all come about?
“I had two major surgeries last year for a chronic condition which required lots of recovery time as well as Cat Scratch had to temporarily close its doors during lockdown, so I was looking for a new gig that allowed me to work remotely. I did a post on Instagram sharing with my community that I was looking for an opportunity to explore some sex positive work, to talk to people about pleasure and sensuality. A lovely human put me forward for a role I didn’t even know existed, based on what I had posted. I spoke with Passionfruit Shop Founder Michelle and the interview just felt fun and it sit right. Initially it was about posting content on their social platforms, but this blossomed into creating original content and accessible educational content on some really integral subjects that are often considered taboo that shouldn’t be.”
Get lost in Lex’s incredible portfolio or DM her for collabs at @alexisdleaphotography or go to alexisdleaphotography.com