With perhaps two-dozen residents of the Plant City Convalescent Home arrayed around the dining room in various states of wheelchair-bound repose, a diminutive, gray-haired fellow is standing by a karaoke rig singing "Lay Your Head on My Pillow." Crooked in his arm like a football is a poodle named Topsy. This is precisely the kind of scene that Bud Lee, picturemaker, would have to photograph. Kitschy, whimsical, Fellini-esque. I can just see him stopping in his tracks, pointing his compact 40-year-old Leica camera, and clicking away.
But Bud can't do that. Having suffered a stroke in August, 2003 - it happened at Popeye's in Plant City, amid a Weekly Planet Best of the Bay shoot - Bud Lee, 64, is paralyzed on his left side, blind in his left eye, confined to a wheelchair.
He wants out of this place. Bad. But for the foreseeable future this is his home. Bud thrives on visitors, and lately there have been lots. His first solo show draws near. From April 17 to July 10, the Tampa Museum of Art presents Bud Lee: PictureMaker, a career retrospective of 60 photographs, selected by curator Jill Jiminez from 500 submitted by Bud's agent, Sergio Waksman. The images come from Life, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Town & Country, the New York Times Magazine and other high-profile publications.
"I thought it was important to get different periods of his career," Jiminez says. "Start with some earlier pieces and move on to the big Esquire projects, with celebrities. The emphasis is on portraits; that's his strong suit. His humor and irony come into play."
Bud's latest period is best represented in the Weekly Planet. Enlisted by former editor Susan Edwards, he began shooting mostly cover features in 1998. Bud took pictures of porn stars, down-and-outers and people's closets, bringing a previously unseen artistry to the Planet's photos.
He also made quite an impression in our Ybor City offices. Bud would amble into the editorial suite, coaxing his bulky frame along, a towel usually draped around his neck. He'd tell stories and ask questions in his high-pitched purr of a voice. He was relentlessly inquisitive. He didn't always seem dialed in when an editor laid out the assignment, and he didn't always come back with what we expected. But, invariably, his work was full of personality and, at its best, revealed bare truths.
Bud looked at every assignment as an adventure - even ones that, in light of his illustrious career, could've seemed insignificant. He knew no caution. In his mind, everyone wanted their picture taken. He could take a cantankerous street person and turn him into an amateur Heidi Klum. "I could get people to pose in ways that you'd think they wouldn't want to do," Bud says. "I've been told I'm a very disarming person. That's part of it. I'm not afraid of people, not shy. I want them to look at the shoot as a collaboration."
His wife Peggy Lee adds, "He's a very kind man, very open and inclusive. At the same time, I've learned over the years that he has a way of getting what he wants with all that. That's part of what makes him very good at photographing people."
Charles Todd Lee Jr. - he's been called Bud all his life - grew up in tony Scarsdale, N.Y., the son of a career diplomat. He joined the army in the early '60s and trained as a photo lab technician. Stationed in Germany, he worked his way into shooting for military publications. Bud mustered out in early '67 and within a few months was shooting for photo-intensive Life magazine. He lived in Manhattan, but constant assignments for an array of periodicals made him a globetrotter.
He joined the federal Artists-in-Schools program, winding up in Tampa in '76. At a Plant City school where he was assigned, he met teacher Peggy Lee Laseter. They married in Ybor City, and moved into a storefront on Seventh Avenue, downstairs from a hooker named Black Mary.
Bud and Peggy Lee became the nexus of Tampa's underground arts scene, which spawned the wide open and wildly successful Artists & Writers Ball, a precursor to Guavaween and Tropical Heatwave.
Despite his free-spiritedness, Bud always wanted a brood of kids. By the time Thomas was born, the family had relocated to Davis Islands, and when the twins, Parker and Steckley came, the Lees moved out to Plant City, where they had Charlotte, the youngest.
Parker, who is working on his masters in architecture in New York, said growing up with an unconventional dad didn't seem weird. "He instilled in us that if you want to do something, do it," Parker says. "Don't let someone else tell you you can't do it."
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