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Life less ordinary: Buddy Lee shares his passion for photography

Trysta Eakin

By Trysta Eakin
Dec. 20, 2010 at 6:20 a.m.

Third-generation dentist and avid photographer Dr. Buddy Lee sat down with GC to talk about his love of photography, his inspiration and his travels with wife, Jerra, in search of the "ordinary doing the extraordinary."

What was the first photograph that you remember making an impression on you?

I was going to the University of Texas many years ago. I had a little camera of some sort and there was a ravine that I was just messing around at, kind of out in the woods, and I took some pictures there. When I got them back from the lab, I thought, "This is really cool." It certainly wasn't anything of note that I took, but that was impressive to me. It made me feel good. You know 300,000-400,000 images later, I'm still wowed by what you can do with a camera.

I love to take a wow picture, that's what I live for.

You talk about taking your mind off of everything else. And I think that's what I like about photography. When I'm shooting or doing post work on the computer, you're just in that moment. You're not worrying about all the stuff you worry about.

Which photographers have influenced you?

One of the things about me is that I can't figure out what kind of photographer I want to be. I love just taking a wow picture, it could be anything from a bug to a fine-art nude. When I think about sports, Walter Iooss, he's a Sports Illustrated guy. He's just an incredible individual. Every Sports Illustrated swimsuit deal, he's big into that. Golf, he's big into that. He's always somewhere around. And he's a big icon for me.

Ansel Adams, of course, for landscape and black and white (photos).

Then there's two guys, one of them is dead now, Helmut Newton. He was a wild man that lived a crazy life in Europe - he's German. He did a lot of real edgy stuff for Bazaar and a lot of other fashion magazines. And then Greg Gorman. He's still doing some great things. A great black and white photographer. He's big into all the celebrities - he's taken pictures of just about anybody and everybody.

I'd say those guys have always been people that when I hear their name or see their name, I know I want to see what they're talking about.

When did you get into photography and what drew you to it?

My mother's side of the family is pretty artistic. There's some people that can draw and paint, but there was some that always had cameras. I guess I get that from her side of the family.

But I've just been fascinated by what you can do with a camera. I remember even as a young man taking pictures of my dad on a cutting horse. I loved seeing the dirt flying, trying to capture that and stab the action right at the peak of what's happening.

The last 20 years, (photography) has become part of my fabric and I really have a good time doing it.

What has been the most "photogenic" place you've shot?

Jerra and I spend a lot of time down in San Miguel, Mexico. I think that's a great place. There's so many opportunities for fine photographs.

Sedona, Ariz., is quite a visual treat. California - Big Sur.

We don't have much like that around here. However, there's all kinds of things that go on around here that hardly anybody sees because we're so busy, we don't look.

It's all about the light - how the light strikes it. So I'm always looking.

At what point did you decide your photos were worth showing?

Well, that would be presumptuous of me to say that my photos are worth showing. But, I don't know, it just seems like I can look at something and it just says "wow" to me.

So I would think that, but if somebody else saw it and said, "Look at this!" Well, that confirms what I intuitively thought. And it builds on itself. People do seem to like what we're doing and I enjoy doing it.

I'm always looking for the ordinary, doing the extraordinary. There are iconic shots, like when you see a great, white heron walking in the water, in the reeds. Well, everybody has seen that. But what you haven't seen is what that heron does as he's foraging for food and how he goes through his lifecycle.

So that's what I enjoy doing, trying to pull those things out of just an ordinary day.

What kind of equipment do you use?

I use Nikon. You know they are all good cameras. I've had Canon and I like that. I shoot with a D3, and it's probably two cameras back from what they have out there right now.

What is your favorite lens to use and why?

I've got a workhorse - it's 18 to 200 (mm). It's a 3.5 to 5.6. My next favorite lens is a 200-400, so it's big. And then a 70-200 I use for sports.

But if you're down in Mexico, or anywhere shooting pictures, if you've got this big lens on your camera, people will start looking at you. But you can be more incognito I guess with a smaller lens.

Which photo-editing software do you use?

I start out with Lightroom. I do all my editing with that and get rid of all the bad stuff. For a photographer that's not going to get into it real deep, that's really all they need. But then I'll take it from there into PhotoShop.

Do you prefer black and white or color? Why?

They're both just so different. Black and white just brings a different aspect to something. Color, I think, takes you into an overall view of a scene. Black and white draws you into different contrasts.

You know, I probably could have been a fashion photographer in another life and I love to do fine art nudes - People might say, "Oh my God, what is he doing out there" - but there is nothing prettier to me than the form of a human body and the different curvatures. The lighting on it, the curves, how the light strikes it - I really enjoy that kind of work.

The thing about photography is that it's just a buffet line, you can do whatever you want. People say you should narrow it down so you can become known for something, but I'm not doing this to become known, I'm doing it because it brings me joy and we have fun with it. It causes you to slow down and look at the world around you.

What inspires you to take a photograph?

That's a really difficult question. Well, No. 1, I know they're out there. No. 2, it's my idea of catching the ordinary doing the extraordinary. It just spurs me on to sharpen the pencil better. I'm always looking for things.

What's been your favorite photo(s) that you've taken?

You know, I probably have, I don't know, 10 or 15 that I really like. But you see, it's kinda like having 10 kids and deciding which one is your favorite. They all have different qualities, they all have different looks to them, they act different and have different energy.

Do you prefer working with live subjects or inanimate objects? Why?

Inanimate objects is how the light hits it, which has always fascinated me. Animate objects have an energy to them, a different kind of energy. So I'm drawn to both.

Do you sell your work or do commercial work?

We do a little commercial photography; we don't do much. That's an issue I've struggled with. I am best at off-the-cuff stuff that just pops up. As far as creating things for a commercial venture, I don't know if that's my strong suit. It's a benefit to me that I don't have to do it for a living. And that's the other part. When you start putting the quantitative with the qualitative, it diminishes the qualitative for me.

Do you think your profession as a dentist has influenced your photography and vice versa?

Well, yes. You know, it's kinda funny. I've always been drawn to an artsy side. And one of the things about dentistry is you've gotta have a function there where everything is balanced and it works well. But there's an artistic expression that you can put on the finishing part of that.

One of the things that I really really enjoy doing is helping people see themselves in a different way, because that energizes me. When you think about that, that's really the cosmetic aspect of a smile. And when somebody feels confident and they don't have to worry about what their teeth look like and they're not hiding their smile, then I've done my job. And to see somebody just bloom like a flower is an awesome feeling to me. And that's probably why I'm still in dentistry. How that fits in with the photography - it's the artistic expression. And so they do go hand in hand for me, because when you look at it, it's the common thread throughout all of it.

How many pictures does it take to get to the "perfect" one?

It can be as few as one or it can be as many as 10,000. You just never know. That's why Jay Maisel says, "Take the camera to the bathroom; I don't care where you go, take the camera," because you never know when something's going to pop up. Well I don't do that, but I do have that camera pretty close by. You never know when it's going to be, then, bam, that's it. You just gotta be ready. And you have to slow down to see it. And that's the thing that none of us do very well, is slow down to see it.

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