Charles Todd “Bud” Lee
January 11, 1941 – June 11, 1015
Charles Todd “Bud” Lee, 74, born in White Plains, New York, called himself “Life Magazine’s Johnny Come Lately,” when referring to his big break as a Life Magazine photographer. “In 1967, I was the newcomer, the novice, fresh out of the Army at a time when sensationalism and bad taste were big in journalism,” he said.
Before joining the Army, Bud was a one-day salesman at Tiffany’s, a server who gave away too much ice cream at Daddy Michael’s Ice Cream Parlor, and a Hilton ballroom set-up man, fired for giving away food. He attended Columbia School of Fine Arts, the National Academy of Fine Arts in New York, and the Art Students League. However, it was the Army that sent him to film school and gave him a life-long career as a photographer. While in the Army in Europe Bud met and befriended Librado (Lee) Romero, who retired as a NYTimes staff photographer in 2013.
Assignments for Stars and Stripes led ultimately to the Department of Defense and the National Press Photographers Association U.S. Military Photographer of the Year Award in 1966. “I borrowed money from my father to buy a three-piece English suit to go accept the award,” he said. At that ceremony, Life Magazine Editor Roy Rowland took notice, and that was his big break. His first assignment for Life was photographing Leslie Fiedler (Freaks, Love and Death in the American Novel) who was arrested in 1967 on the charge of maintaining premises where banned substances were being used.
Bud photographed for Esquire Magazine during the important Managing Editor Harold Hayes era, and worked with some of the most relevant writers, editors and art directors of the 1960’s. “Hayes gave me the best jobs,” Bud said, “international film directors like Francois Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni and American directors such as Sam Peckinpah, and Arthur Penn and big jocks like Charles Atlas and Bob Richards, Mr. America.”
A frequent visitor of Andy Warhol’s Factory, Bud did the photos for a 1976 story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine for the cover piece on presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. The artist then created what turned out to be a very innovative cover for the same issue.
Bud’s Life Magazine cover of a 12 year-old boy bleeding on the sidewalk during the Newark race riots, earned him Life Magazine’s Photographer of the year award, and propelled him to assignments with major magazines and newspapers throughout the United States and Europe, like Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Town and Country, London Sunday Times and New York Times Sunday Magazine.
On assignment Bud photographed Hollywood legends, among them Clint Eastwood, Clayton Moore (The Lone Ranger), Jane Russell, Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Andy Kaufman and countless more. Bud also photographed writers such as Tennessee Williams and James Leo Herlihy and many musicians for Rolling Stone Magazine. He spent time with film director Federico Fellini working on two of his projects; Satyricon (with the recently deceased Mary Ellen Mark) and Fellini’s Clowns.
Bud also became known for some controversial and difficult assignments, like photographing the fetus of the first legal abortion in the United States. But it was a 16-page spread in Esquire on Evil in California (follow-up story on the Charles Manson killings) and his own failed marriage to a struggling actress that led to what Bud described as a turning point in his life. He credits his father, a long-time Diplomatic Corps employee under Nelson Rockefeller, with nursing him back to health in Iowa after a breakdown. Before his illness, he had been working at the Iowa School of Journalism, and founded the Iowa Photographers Workshop.
After recuperating, Bud returned briefly to New York, and soon found work in Georgia, and then Plant City, Florida, as a Filmmaker in the Schools under National Endowment for the Arts grants. He met and married Peggy Laseter, Plant City art teacher, where they settled permanently and raised four children, Thomas, 38, of Carrboro N.C., twins, 37, Steckley, of Plant City, and Parker, of New Haven, Conn., and Charlotte, 34, of Atlanta, Ga. At this time in his career he focused mainly on assignments closer to home, and immersed himself in the arts community in Tampa and Ybor City as the creator and founder of the Annual Artists and Writers Ball. When assignments did take him away from home, he traveled with photographs of his children in a camera bag, saying they kept evil spirits away from him.
Charlotte Lee, youngest daughter, says that her dad put everyone he met in the same playing field. “He didn’t care what you did or who you were–everyone had a story worth photographing.”
Friends and family agree that Bud was in his element behind the camera capturing Bud Lee moments–that he had a remarkable eye and passion for the diverse and sometimes bizarre elements in everyone. “Great photographs record a moment not the way the photographer saw it, but the way the subjects experience it,” said writer Lucian Truscott IV when the two worked on a story for Esquire about a Manhattan pimp and his 4 year old son.
In 2003 Bud suffered two strokes that left him partially paralyzed, and he spent the last 12 years in a Plant City nursing home. Unable to take pictures, he returned to an early love, painting and drawing. He died at South Florida Baptist Hospital, Plant City, following complications from surgery to correct an old problem.
In addition to his wife and children, Bud leaves behind five grandchildren, Madoc, Jack, Ryah, Ida and Eleanor, daughter-in-laws Caroline and Sarah, son-in-law Ali Laseter Dashti, and two sisters Elsie and Linda, of Scarsdale, N.Y.
Written by Betty Briggs