Lords of the Lens - Page 9

8 great architectural photographers—mid-century California was their domain
 
 

8. LELAND LEE

Although he is not one of the best-known mid-century architectural photographers, Lee had a distinguished career of close to 40 years, largely in the Los Angeles and Palm Springs areas.

Born in San Francisco's Chinatown, Lee (1918-2016) lost his father as a boy and then lived in a boarding school for disadvantaged children where he learned photography.

After serving in the Air Force during World War II, visiting North Africa, India, and China, he studied photography in Southern California before working for eight years as Julius Shulman's 'outside assistant' when Shulman was on location.

On his own beginning in 1961, Lee shot a wide variety of architecture—tract homes, custom homes, banks—for architects, including A. Quincy Jones, Pierre Koenig, and John Lautner. He shot some of Joe Eichler's homes in the city of Orange.

He focused on the homes of stars—Kirk Douglas, Dinah Shore, Burt Reynolds, Cheryl Ladd, and Mary Tyler Moore—for Good Housekeeping magazine in the 1970s.

Lords of the Lens
One of the photos that survived Leland Lee's devastating fire and flood loss to his archive is this image of the Elrod House (John Lautner, architect) in Palm Springs from 1968.

Lee's career involved much else besides architecture. But that is what he found most compelling.

He became a master of lighting, spending days to get each setup right. He recalled shooting the Arthur Elrod House, a party residence for the famous designer in Palm Springs. The architect was John Lautner.

"The floor was totally black," Lee said in a 2008 interview. "When you have black against black, it's taxing. You have to get very soft, reflective light to compensate for the bright sun."

"Julius believed in using existing light. But existing light is only good up to a point," Lee said. "It's feasible when you use black-and-white film, but in color you need ideal conditions to permit existing light. You learn to use your own devices. Not rigid reflectors, but foil. I could feather it, block it, use gels for color to alter the quality of light."

"The photography should certainly reveal the soul of the house," Lee said. "Every good house has an aspect about it, and your photo needs to speak about that."

Tragically, Lee's archive of photos has been lost, first in a flood and then in a fire.

 

• Special thanks to Pierluigi Serraino, Alan Hess, and Adriene Biondo for their assistance in assembling our roster of photographer greats

Photography: By all the participating 'lords of the lens'; and courtesy Ernie Braun Archive, Rondal Partridge Archive, Vicki Rand and the Marvin Rand Archive, Leland Lee estate, Roger Sturtevant Collection (Oakland Museum of California - Gift of Roger Sturtevant), Julius Shulman Archive (© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles), Dorothea Lange Archive (Oakland Museum of California - Gift of Dorothea Lange), Maynard L. Parker: photographer (courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA), Hines House - Sea Ranch (1968) by Morley Baer (©2020 The Morley Baer Photography Trust - Santa Fe. All rights reserved. Used by permission)