Award-winning Tampa photographer Bud Lee dies at 74

Internationally known photographer Bud Lee died Thursday at a nursing home in Plant City.
Internationally known photographer Bud Lee died Thursday at a nursing home in Plant City.
Published June 12, 2015

Bud Lee's career as an award-winning photographer took him around the world and into the presence of celebrities and world events. Just as much as for his great images, he will be remembered for the antic creativity, talent and energy to create an arts scene in Tampa both bohemian and purposeful that resonates today.

Mr. Lee, self-described "picture maker," died Thursday at a nursing home in Plant City. He was 74.

Charles Todd Lee Jr., known as Bud, was born on Jan. 11, 1941, in White Plains, N.Y. He studied at the Columbia School of Fine Arts and the National Academy of Fine Arts in New York, but eschewed fine art and studio photography for a grittier street style. He joined the Army, and in 1965 was assigned to Stars and Stripes as a photographer for the publication. In 1966, the Department of Defense and the National Press Photographers Association named him U.S. military photographer of the year.

The next year, he began working for Life magazine and his work there, especially covering riots in Newark, N.J., earned him the magazine's top photography award. By 1974, he was a sought-after freelancer for publications including Esquire, Vogue, Rolling Stone and the New York Times. His daughter, Steckley Lee, said that after he completed a grueling assignment in the aftermath of the Charles Manson murders in California, "He had some sort of mental breakdown," wanting to take time away from the fast lane. With a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, he began the Artist-Filmmaker in the Schools program in Tampa. There he met his wife, Peggy, a teacher, and never left.

In Tampa, he became one of the most transformative individuals the arts community would ever know. He and his friends founded several organizations that benefited artists and the arts and became legendary for their special events, including the annual Artists and Writers Ball in Ybor City.

David Audet, one of his best friends, first met him in 1978 when Audet was graduating from the University of South Florida with a degree in photography and filmmaking.

"He awarded me a prize when he was a judge for a show. It was my first one," Audet said. "He then convinced me to help him do a remake of Rashomon (a famous Japanese film) and I totally blew it. Wrong speed, exposures, filters. He thought it was great. I didn't know how famous Bud was and he never made a big deal about it. He taught me to have no fear. There are no mistakes."

After a 2003 stroke, Mr. Lee lived in a nursing home in Plant City, but he constantly was surrounded by his family and friends, and many tributes and exhibitions of his work were held through the years. No longer able to use a camera, he painted and sketched.

"He made art," his daughter said. "I brought him sketch pads last week. He was still creating."

"I always took him to the (Plant City) Strawberry Festival," Audet said, "and he said he wanted to go this year. But then when I got there, he didn't. I realized he had lived in that bed for years, and he was done."

Steckley Lee said a complication from an old problem required surgery on Saturday.

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"They said going in he might not come through it, but he wanted to do it. He came through it pretty strong. But then it went downhill."

He spoke with friends during his last days and his family played his favorite music. Steckley Lee said he died peacefully in his sleep.

"He always said we (his family) were his greatest work of art. He was so proud of us."

"I'm sad, but I'm mostly happy," Audet said. "He was such an explorer. He was so nice."

Contact Lennie Bennett at or (727) 893-8293.