Thomas Lea doesn't look like the kind of guy who fled the business world to hang out in the streets of San Francisco taking photos. At 62, Lea has a head of closely cropped gray hair, wears black framed glasses, and a hint of a Southern accent still clings to some words in his deliberate way of speaking. He dresses neatly in button-down dress shirts and polished shoes, and were it not for the portfolio he carries, his appearance would hardly suggest that he's an artist.
But since his late 20s—when he decided to quit his job with an ad agency and become a full-time photographer—he's been a working artist. Describing himself as a self-taught street photographer, Lea hit the neighborhoods of San Francisco in the '70s armed with his camera and dressed like a tourist, learning how to capture the world he saw around him. Lea moved to Boise three years ago, after several decades in the Bay Area. The self-proclaimed "big city snob" said that at first, what he perceived as the Treasure Valley's lack of diversity bothered him. After years in a much larger city, Lea said, he'd lived in an environment rich in racial, cultural and lifestyle diversity, and he missed it.
"To me, diversity was part of my life, and one of the things I noticed when I came to Boise was that it was mostly Caucasian," said Lea.
But last summer, while hanging out at the Capital City Public Market on Eighth Street, Lea started to see a more varied collection of people. He began to see some interesting regular visitors to the market—a woman at the market who dressed like she was a Manhattan socialite and a guy who always wore an unusual hat. Lea realized that while Boise may not be racially diverse, that doesn't mean it's not home to a wide array of people.
The Idaho Commission on the Arts gave Lea a grant to pursue "Market People," a collection of photographs that is, at least in part, "a view of how we look" in Boise. Wanting the art to be about the people rather than the products of the market, Lea staged each shot against the same brick background, intending to create a static world from which only the people emerged.
Lea said few people he approached declined to be photographed. He was careful to convey to people that he hadn't chosen them from the crowd to poke fun, but rather that he thought diversity was a beautiful thing, and that diversity means more than faces of a different color.
"I did see a lot of diversity in lifestyle," said Lea. "I did look for that, and I didn't have to look too hard. I didn't have to go too far out of my way to find people who are not living a suburban white lifestyle."
Through May 15, "Market People" will be on display at Zeppole (217 N. Eighth St.), and it's slated to hang in the Boise Airport starting May 20.