He saw it all: Remembering Bud Lee (1941-2015)

Remembering the keen eye and open heart of the late photographer Bud Lee.

click to enlarge He saw it all: Remembering Bud Lee (1941-2015) - TODD BATES
He saw it all: Remembering Bud Lee (1941-2015)

Editor's Note: Famed local photographer Charles Todd Lee Jr., known to the world as Bud Lee, died June 11 in his home in Plant City. Local writer Lynn Waddell, author of Fringe Florida: Travels among Mud Boggers, Furries, Ufologists, Nudists, and Other Lovers of Unconventional Lifestyles, shared with Lee a yen for the offbeat and unpredictable and eventually got to know Lee as a friend as she worked with him on story assignments for Weekly Planet at the turn of the 21st century.  Lee is survived by his wife, Peggy; two daughters, Steckley and Charlotte; two sons, Thomas and Parker; five grandchildren; and two sisters, Elsie Lee and Linda Lee. A memorial service will take place on July 11 at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, 400 N Ashley Drive, Tampa. Visitation at 5 p.m.; memorial service at 6 p.m.  Funeral arrangements are by Hopewell Funeral Home. Visit the Bud Lee Picturemaker website for updates.

Bud Lee lived with the window wide open. He saw splendor in every shape — ordinary or grand. He relished capturing society’s underbelly and was impervious to the chill of judgment it might bring. He approached his art with a childlike naiveté to social conventions and turned his back to commercialism. As a result his images are honest and true, refreshing even when his subjects were bleak. His skills let you see the world as he did — complex, beautiful and endlessly fascinating.

He was the truest artist I've known and the kindest of friends. I was lucky to have worked with him at the Weekly Planet, now Creative Loafing, and beyond as a freelancer.

Every assignment with Bud was an unforgettable road trip. You never knew what would catch his eye and what crevice of Tampa Bay you might land in on the way to an interview. Once when we were working on a photo essay about people's closets (another amazing thing about Bud, he was always game for my strangest ideas), he braked hard in a ragged area of town, jumped out of his cluttered Suzuki and shot photos of a back stoop with a man's set of clothes and shoes — as Bud saw it — a poor man's closet.

Bud was also compassionate and deliciously eccentric. While visiting the home he shared with his wife, Peggy, in Plant City, I wanted to use the guest bathroom and he said, “Wait, there are chickens in there.”

click to enlarge TREASURED SNAPSHOT: Lee’s portrait of The Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore, at home in 1971, hangs in Waddell's home now. - BUD LEE
TREASURED SNAPSHOT: Lee’s portrait of The Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore, at home in 1971, hangs in Waddell's home now.
He wasn’t joking. I followed him as he stumbled over an explanation: a wild animal had been killing their chickens in the backyard; to protect the remaining two, the Lees moved them inside the house. (I later noticed evidence that they were free range.)

His caring nature applied to more than just animals. He was forever helping people. When I started freelancing he thumbed through a tattered notebook and shared scribbled contacts from around the globe. He passed along job opportunities, including one with a client that owed him a tidy sum. Never mind, he was sure they would pay him eventually. That was Bud; he often usually saw the best in people even when they didn’t deserve it. The company that owed him folded.

Although he wanted to be paid, Bud wasn’t driven by a quest for money or fame. He never bragged about his glory days of shooting for Esquire, Rolling Stone, being 1967 Life magazine news photographer of the year, working with Fellini, or founding the Iowa Photography Workshop. He didn’t declare himself king of Tampa’s art scene even though he’s widely credited as a leading pioneer.

I didn’t even know the extent of his work for national magazines until after I left the Planet. We were talking about creating a professional website and he led me into his living room filled with metal filing cabinets. He opened drawers stuffed with his images – old magazines covers, a famous poster of a Cockette, unpublished photographs of Mick Jagger, Al Green, piles of negatives featuring Clint Eastwood, ZZ Top, Andy Warhol, Tom Brokaw, Norman Rockwell and countless other celebrities. All unorganized, unprotected.

My husband, James, a designer, and I put together a professional website for Bud in exchange for him shooting our engagement and beach wedding photos. He had us bring costumes to the engagement photo shoot, and talked us into stretching out in a creek and jumping into a pool in suit and long dress. As one might guess, the wedding photos also aren’t traditional (one friend calls them the weirdest wedding pictures she’s ever seen), which makes me treasure them all the more.

Bud suffered a stroke about a month after our wedding which paralyzed him on one side and confined him to a wheelchair and a nursing home in Plant City. He was frustrated by his inability to explore the world, but he didn’t give up on life or art. He talked friends into sneaking him hamburgers, fries, milkshakes and even a beer. He continued to sketch and paint even though he was limited by paralysis. I regret not visiting him in recent years, not traveling the extra mile for him as he did for me and so many others. His loss is painful lesson to stay in touch with dear friends and let them know how much they are treasured.

For years Bud’s photo of Clayton Moore, the original Lone Ranger has hung on my living room wall. I laugh remembering his story of how Moore showed up at the front door of his home dressed in full Lone Ranger regalia. As I sit now beneath the image, I take comfort in knowing that he lives on in his work and that I have piece of it that challenges me to look at the world through a different lens.

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