Even when he stops briefly to answer a question, the slight, sinewy Leland Lee vibrates with anticipation about the adventure of his next shot from a cherry picker overlooking a pool and garden. Indeed, he moves around the house and grounds like some crosshatch of a firefly and hummingbird, seeming, at times, to defy gravity, plugged into some invisible energy source.
In a sleeveless white T-shirt and slacks, a Nikon hanging around his neck, the renowned photographer is also the star of this production. One idea catches up with another at warp speed, crushing any preconceived notions about how someone of his age (92) and stature should look and act. It is a dichotomy worth noting when the oldest living dean of midcentury modern photography agrees to turn his creative
eye and practiced lens loose on the last of Palm Springs’ great classic Spanish estates.
When owner Dr. Jane Cowles Smith asked Lee to document the Cary Grant estate after her 11-year restoration of the property, he couldn’t say no.
“There was that cachet of a famous person, and here is this beautiful home that has been restored by an educated and well-traveled woman to be livable and not just for showcasing,” Lee says. “I found I responded to that — a home that exudes a quality of living, maybe because I’ve photographed so many that don’t.”
Lee had but one caveat in setting up the shooting schedule: It had to be done during the days and nights surrounding a full moon.
“The shooting possibilities around a full moon are endless,” Lee explains. “It always brings unpredictability, but you are also going to get at least one good day.”
“It’s all about serendipity,” he continues, his gray-blue eyes sparkling at the idea he is taking a major detour from the haven of his modernism reputation by shooting a Spanish Andalusian farmhouse.
Smith didn’t know what to expect, considering the unusual scheduling request. But when Lee arrived at the estate bearing an armload of gardenias, roses, and croissants, she was disarmed and, after only a few minutes, enchanted.
“His aura transcends this planet,” she says, “and he is a master of setting the stage with a flower here, a candle there, a chair turned a certain way, waiting for either sun or moon to be in the perfect place . . . a genius in seeing what no one else sees.”
What Lee sees at the Grant estate is very different from the lean, angular images displayed at his first solo exhibition earlier this year at the Michael H. Lord Gallery in Palm Springs (a showing of prints made from 1960s Ektachrome transparencies).
“This house lives. There is never a minute that the light isn’t changing something,” he says. “The nuances are endless.”
Late in the afternoon on one of the sunrise-to-moonset shooting days, Lee sits down momentarily to rest his sandal-clad feet, but then springs up and runs off to check out something he’s just thought of for the next day’s agenda. His agility, he says, is a testament to his penchant for ballroom dancing and just plain good genes.