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As 'Bud Lee's America' closes, Tampa Bay arts community pays tribute to photographer

Acclaimed photographer Bud Lee talks with former Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena amid friends, fans and supporters during a benefit in his honor on Thursday at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.

TYLER TJOMSLAND | Times

Acclaimed photographer Bud Lee talks with former Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena amid friends, fans and supporters during a benefit in his honor on Thursday at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.

TAMPA — His eyes trained on the image of himself, talking about photos covering the gallery walls.

"Art doesn't have to be finished," said renowned photographer Bud Lee in a documentary that began nearly 10 years ago. "It can just be an idea."

Lee, 71, soaked in the musings of his former self as he sat in his wheelchair Thursday night watching a snippet of Charles Lyman's documentary Inside Out at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts. The gathering was a closing party for Bud Lee's America, an exhibit of his famous photographs. It also served the dual purpose of a fundraiser to preserve the works of an auteur who can't maintain his own legacy.

A stroke in 2003 ended Lee's 40-year career of capturing every moment around him, but not his love for art. He now paints things he's imagined as he lives in a Plant City convalescent home.

Family, friends, former students and fans came out to see him amid his life's work.

The museum will retain the works, said Thomas Lee, 34, Bud's eldest son. But the exhibit will not be displayed in its entirety after the museum moves to a new location in the next month, said Joanne Milani, curator of the museum.

Throughout his career, Lee has been steeped in honors. He was named military photographer of the year by the National Press Photographers Association, photographer of the year by Life magazine and awarded a prize by the Missouri School of Journalism before the '60s ended. He freelanced for publications including Esquire and Vogue.

But it's what he did for the Tampa arts community that remained a focus for the crowd of admirers Thursday night.

Lee's compulsive photography made a trip from Tampa to Key West take two days, said Paul Wilborn, a former Times writer who currently manages the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg.

"We'd drive along for five minutes and he'd say 'Stop. That's a picture,'  " Wilborn, 59, recalled.

David Audet, 60, a Lee collaborator, remembered fudging a shoot of Don Johnson's famous Miami Vice pastel jackets for an Esquire shoot.

"We had to go out and buy a bunch of jackets and then set up mirrors to make it look like more," he laughed.

Bud Lee was always game —even when a group of local writers and artists wanted to satirize the Gasparilla festivities with their own party.

Lee provided nude models posing with snakes as decoration for the first Artists and Writers Ball, which morphed over the years into Guavaween, Wilborn said.

Charlotte Lee, 30, Lee's youngest daughter, said she has huge pretzel tins full of undeveloped film of her father's. Two years ago, she got a few rolls done.

"They were pictures of my mother when she was pregnant with me and pictures immediately after I was born," she remembered.

The stories shared were recorded for possible use in a book called When Ybor City Had Balls, a retrospective of the Ybor artists movement and celebrations.

Being admired, while in the room, stirred feelings in Lee.

"It's kind of overwhelming," he said. "I don't remember getting old this quickly."

If you go

Bud Lee's America will remain open until Saturday. The Florida Museum of Photographic Arts is at 200 N Tampa St., Suite 130. The entrance at the corner of Ashley Drive and Jackson Street in downtown Tampa.

As 'Bud Lee's America' closes, Tampa Bay arts community pays tribute to photographer 02/09/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 9, 2012 11:55pm]
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