Best Bud

Art sale and auction to help defray medical costs of standout photographer Bud Lee

click to enlarge Bud Lee circa 1978 - DAVID AUDET
Bud Lee circa 1978

One of Bud Lee's earliest photographs, shot in 1966 for Stars and Stripes when Bud was 25, displays the wit and flair for composition that would win him the title of Military Photographer of the Year and launch him on a remarkable and turbulent career.He took the photo at the Louvre in Paris. The first thing you see is a Rembrandt painting called "Bathsheba," a lavish nude with abundant hips, belly and breasts. A gaggle of nuns, seen from the back in their long black habits, cluster around the painting. A tall, thin blond woman in a mini dress stands behind them, peering over their heads at the painting. She balances out the composition perfectly, right down to the way her arm, bent at the elbow, mirrors Bathsheba's arm in the painting.

Bud's unique vision garnered him work in some of the most dynamic magazines in the 1960s and '70s. He photographed the heroes, rock stars and icons of the times, including Mick Jagger, Al Green, Clint Eastwood, Martin Luther King Jr., Federico Fellini, Francois Truffault, The Lone Ranger and many others for magazines such as Esquire, Life, Rolling Stone and The London Times Sunday Magazine.

In her book It Wasn't Pretty, Folks, But Didn't We Have Fun? Esquire in the Sixties, Carol Posgrove calls Bud Lee one of Esquire's favorite photographers, comparing him to Diane Arbus, who also worked for the magazine at the time. "Both he and Arbus seemed to be telling stories," she writes. "Entire complex narratives implied by a single image. ... His still photographs had the dramatic quality of movie stills."

The editors, writers and photographers at Esquire were creating a new, iconoclastic style of journalism with a satiric edge to capture a nation in the throes of revolution, and Bud was at the center of the action. "It was a wonderful, strange, amazing time," he says. "Most of the people were in their 20s. ... It was very manic; you never knew who would be there, Andy Warhol, Robert Pirsig ... it could be anyone."

Though he was enjoying the success and creativity of those unbridled times, they had a dark side, too, and it eventually got to him. Life magazine had sent him to photograph the Newark riots in 1967. His photos of an 11-year-old boy shot in a spray of bullets shocked the nation and earned him Life's Photographer of the Year award. But the experience shocked Bud, too. On assignment in California for a piece called California Evil, he witnessed disturbing rituals and ate fruit laced with LSD. He ended up in jail after panicking and setting off a fire alarm to get help. Diane Arbus killed herself. The satirical pieces that once seemed witty began to feel simply cruel to him. His wife left him.

"I was looking for a normal place to be," Bud says. He came to Tampa in 1976 to work in the new Artists in the Schools program. "It was perfect. I wanted to meet nice, normal women — teachers and kids." He requested to work in a small town and was sent to Plant City, where he met a nice teacher named Peggy Laseter. They married soon after and began having children almost immediately: Thomas in 1977, twins Steckley and Parker in '78 and Charlotte in '81.

Though he did his best to have a normal family life, he couldn't help sticking out in Plant City, conservative even by Tampa standards. He filled the house and yard in his suburban neighborhood with art and treasures the neighbors saw as junk. And he brought home odd-looking people, the artists and creative misfits he collected along with everything else.

Having grown up as the son of a diplomat in South America, Bud was used to not quite fitting in anywhere, but he knows being different was tough on his family. "We used to do a Christmas pageant in the front yard every year and invite the neighborhood kids to be in it," Bud remembers. The parents let their children participate in the play, he says, but "they were afraid to come in the house, and they wouldn't eat our food."

If he was an outsider in Plant City, he was at the center of a growing creative vortex in Ybor City. He attracted and mentored fledgling artists and writers, encouraging them to stretch their imaginations and take risks, and he began collecting the work of untrained "outsider" artists. He was one of the founding editors of Tabloid, Tampa's first alternative magazine in 1983, and the creative instigator of the Artists and Writers Ball, a Fellini-esque alternative to the class-conscious Gasparilla balls. And all the while he was traveling the state, taking pictures of everything and filtering it through his offbeat aesthetic.

In the almost 30 years he has lived here, he has captured Florida's eccentric character, from the diner where Elvis ate and the Desert Inn at Yeehaw Junction, to the burning cane fields at the Gates of Hell and quirky art at roadside produce stands.

He was working on Weekly Planet's Best of the Bay issue last summer when a stroke landed him in the hospital. He remains paralyzed on his left side. The good folks at Community Convalescent Center in Plant City have been taking excellent care of him, but he needs aggressive physical therapy if he is going to get on his feet again. The longer he's without therapy, the more difficult it will be to regain full functioning.

Bud's friends, led by David Audet, are holding an art sale and auction to raise funds for his recovery Sat., Jan. 24, 6-11 p.m. at the Lotus Room Gallery, 1101 W. Kennedy Blvd. in Tampa. With plenty of music, food and art, it promises to be a good party and a great opportunity to help out one of Tampa's most important cultural resources. Plus, collectors will find good prices on artwork from some of the area's best artists, including Monica Naugle, Suzanne Camp-Crosby, Ed Ross, John Costin, Mernet Larsen, Susan Gott, John Briggs, Rick Melby and David Audet, as well as Judy Chicago and Kenny Scharf.

To Sample Bud Lee's work, check out

Contributing Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at [email protected].

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