Leland Y. Lee calls photographing the Elrod House by John Lautner his “single most rewarding” experience as an architectural shooter. The time was 1969 — the year of Vietnam War protests, Woodstock, and the Manson murders — when Will Mehlhorn, then-architecture editor of House & Garden magazine, flew in from New York on a Thursday afternoon to direct the shoot.
“We drove straight to the house, shot all Thursday night, shot all day Friday, and I drove him back to the Beverly Wilshire late Saturday night, and [Mehlhorn] flew back on a red eye,” Lee recalls. He was particularly impressed by Lautner’s good manners. “He was always very affable and professionally gracious, which was not unknown for him,” says Lee, who at 91 still has the gift of turning a phrase.
Lee’s carefully framed images of the celebrated Lautner design, in fact, are worthy of Lee’s former employer, the late Julius Shulman, the renowned architectural photographer who died last July at the age of 98. Only a few people remember that Lee was Shulman’s longtime assistant at the height of the latter’s career in documenting modernist architecture in Southern California.
In his 10th decade, Lee celebrates his first solo photography exhibition this month at Michael H. Lord Gallery during Palm Springs Modernism Week.
The soft-spoken Lee takes pleasure in recounting a life notable for persistence and the desire for education. He was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown to immigrant parents. His early life saw frequent shuttling between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Both of Lee’s parents died when he was young, and he found himself at a charitable school for boys in San Dimas. Lee remembers the school appreciatively, because he learned the basic elements of photography there, and the headmaster, H. Jerry Voorhis, became the most influential figure in his education. By the end of the 1930s, he was back in San Francisco, where he talked his way into a job in “the most prestigious-looking camera shop I could find at Union Square.” He took his first gig at a portrait studio.
Drafted in World War II, he trained at Gunner Field in Montgomery, Ala., and served in Morocco, India, and China. After the war, he visited his father’s village and, later, a cousin took him to Shanghai, where he met his future wife.
Lee operated a photography studio in Honolulu and completed his education in the early 1950s at Art Center College of Design. Although he had contemplated fashion photography, Lee was hired in 1952 as Shulman’s assistant, a position he held for eight years.
Lee’s memories of his former mentor are affectionate but clear-eyed. He recalls the Shulman as a strong personality. “Julius was very outspoken and sometimes not very diplomatic,” he says. Lee was also an observer of the famous relationship between Shulman and architect Richard Neutra, for whom the photographer worked for more than 30 years. “He and Shulman were very contentious,” Lee says, “but in the end, they needed one another.”
Lee ventured out on his own again in 1961, resolving not to poach any of Shulman’s clients. While admirable, the resolution limited his boundaries as an architecture specialist. He became a general assignment shooter for magazines, equally comfortable with gardens, interiors, and celebrity portraiture. He calls a director piquing Cyd Charisse for suggesting a pose. “The sparks flew,” he says, “as if you could tell an actress how to hold herself.”
The architectural shoots came less frequently — unfortunate, given Lee’s ability in this demanding field. One exception: the Wyle House by architect John Rex in the rural setting of North Fork in Madera County. “The simple form of the house,” he recalls, “looked like a Japanese lamp at night.” Lee’s career halted in the early 1990s. Within a period of months, his wife died after several years of illness and a fire in his garage destroyed 90 percent of his life’s work in photography. Usually animated and talkative, Lee whispers when he talks about the experience. “Nothing you can do about it,” he says. “It’s just how it is.”
Lee was not defeated, however. Earlier this year, he chatted around a table with art dealer Michael Lord, who offered the nonagenarian photographer an exhibition after viewing a series of old Ektachrome transparencies. “We were captivated,” says Gallery Director Sam Heaton. “The outstanding quality of the photographs and their vintage — from the 1960s — is what spoke to us the most.” The show will serve Lee well, as Michael H. Lord Gallery has preserved the images archivally and is working with Mike Rebholz, a photographer in Madison, Wis., to scan and restore color faded from the negatives.
At Shulman’s memorial at the Getty Center last September, Lee was surprised and touched when Shulman’s daughter, Judy McKee, cited him for his contribution to Shulman’s career. Unfortunately, Lee arrived late to the ceremony and didn’t hear the tribute. “I only heard about it afterwards,” he says.
LELAND LEE EXHIBITION
Feb. 12-March 12, 2010
(reception Feb. 18, 7-9 p.m.)
Michael H. Lord Gallery
1090 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs
Leland Y. Lee, whose career spans decades of documenting iconic architecture and interiors in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, assisted Julius Shulman and photographed for John Lautner, Arthur Elrod, and Harold Broderick from the 1950s to the 1970s. His images have appeared in Architectural Digest, House & Garden, and other publications.