Take a drawing, Bud Lee says to three visitors getting ready to leave his nursing home room. I flip through the stack of oil crayon drawings, dozens of them, and pick one with three figures sketched in fiery orange and red — two men, each with a penis drawn in black crayon, and a woman with circles for breasts — against a backdrop of blue and green. Below, a scrawled inscription reads: Facts are the weapon of life. I love the drawing’s puzzling poetry — if facts are the weapon, are feelings the balm? — its fierce energy, its bald sexuality. Bud, recumbent in bed, carefully signs it.
With all my love, Bud Lee.
At 71, Lee — an Ernest Hemingway lookalike with a bushy white beard — retains an inspiring vitality. By certain measures, he’s not in great shape, nor has he been since 2003, when a stroke paralyzed his left side and sent him to the Plant City nursing home where he resides today. But Bud still sports enough spirit to put any whippersnapper to shame. For proof, try arguing with him, as one good-humored nurse did during our visit, about whether his doctor has given him permission to drink the occasional small cup of beer, like the one he was sipping when we arrived.
Through Feb. 11, the irrepressible Lee is the focus of a solo exhibition at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts. It’s the just latest honor in a prolific career that began in 1966 when Lee, then 25, earned the title of U.S. Military Photographer of the Year. Journalistic assignments for major magazines followed, and in 1968 Lee was named Life’s Photographer of the Year for his work documenting race riots in Newark, N.J. Because the details of his professional life are well-documented online and in educational materials at FMoPA, I’ll cut to the chase. After a decade of work as a photographer and teacher took Lee around the world — from shooting famous European film directors including François Truffaut (one of his favorite subjects) to documenting places where killer Charles Manson and his followers lived (an assignment Lee calls his most difficult) — he found himself in Ybor City, and then in Plant City, teaching photography at local public schools as part of an NEA-funded program. In the years that followed, Lee started a family and inspired a generation of Tampa Bay area artists.
FMoPA’s exhibition is rich in its inclusion of photographs both from Lee’s days shooting for glossy publications — portraits of Clint Eastwood, ZZ Top, and Roger Frampton, for example, are in the show — along with images that evince his later enchantment with life in Ybor, Plant City, and Gibsonton as subjects. The latter images in particular show off Lee’s gift for finding extraordinary subjects in everyday people and places, an ability that places his best images on par with those of famed American shooters like Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand, says Suzanne Camp Crosby, professor of photography at HCC Ybor.
For his part, Lee is self-deprecating about his work with celebrities. He calls the Eastwood photo, in which the t-shirt clad movie star leans against a silver sports car, “overrated” and points out that it was never published. The original Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore, is an exception. Lee’s shoot with the actor, who answered the front door of his Los Angeles home — decorated in garish, 1970s baroque bordello style — in full costume, remains one of the photographer’s favorites. The two pictures of Moore, one of the actor mugging in a bathroom mirror, the other seated with his teenage daughter in a living room adorned with erotic paintings, are some of the exhibition’s funniest.
My personal favorites are more Florida-focused. One is a portrait of an African-American woman dubbed “The Christmas Lady of College Hill.” Lee got to know her because she often walked around Ybor “dressed like a Christmas tree,” he says. One day she let him follow her home and make a picture of her inside her house, which the resulting photograph reveals as elaborately painted and decorated throughout in vibrant colors, like an immersive work of folk art. A portrait of Gibsonton’s legless circus performer Jeanie Tomaini, aka Half-Girl, is another fascinating gem. In each case, a viewer can sense the affection and respect with which Lee captured his subject, one creative spirit encountering another.
Along with his photography (which often appeared in The Weekly Planet, CL’s former incarnation), Lee’s role as a scene-maker and mentor to Tampa Bay artists in the 1980s and ’90s comprises his artistic legacy. Among those whose lives he transformed through friendship during his time in Ybor — as part of a community of artists then living in the historic district’s storefronts that included painter James Rosenquist — were Paul Wilborn, now executive director of the Palladium Theater in St. Pete, and David Audet, a photographer responsible for Ybor’s literary festival, Deep Carnivale, and its Festival of the Moving Image. Both cite the annual Artists and Writers Balls, initiated by Lee in the 1980s, as influential experiences. Each massive party had an outrageous theme — one was “Bad Taste in Outer Space” — and took place in an historic Ybor building like the Cuban Club. The events paved the way for Guavaween and WMNF’s Tropical Heatwave, but, more importantly, they gave the people involved a sense of having contributed to a genre-defying collaborative artwork.
“It broke me away from that academic track where all your art looks the same or you’re supposed to know where you’re going,” says Audet, who was studying film at USF when he first met Lee. “Bud showed me there’s this whole other world.”
Wilborn worked as a reporter for the Tampa Tribune at the time.
“Bud gave you a feeling that you could do anything,” he says.
“Let’s make incredible things happen with no money.”
Both men recall traveling with Lee when he began to freelance again in the 1990s and the photographer’s aptitude for charming potential subjects. Among the photographs on display at FMoPA is one taken by Audet with Lee’s camera. In it, a fully-clothed Bud dives into the pool at Miami’s ritzy Eden Roc hotel. Audet’s memory of snapping the photo from inside the hotel is hazy, but he’s sure Lee must have sweet-talked somebody into letting him take the plunge.
That Bud Lee charm greased the wheels for more than one photo shoot, including a series of images, on view in the exhibit, made inside a Key West brothel for an Esquire story by Tennessee Williams. The randy sailors who populate the photographs weren’t actual clients of the brothel, Lee admits, but impromptu accomplices whom he met along the way and convinced to participate in the shoot.
Looking back on a life’s work, what’s the secret to turning countless strangers into eager photographic subjects, artistic collaborators, friends and admirers?
“Just be nice to people,” Lee advises.