Tom Lee’s photographs were exhibited throughout the country. He’s won numerous competitions, received two Governor’s Arts Awards and earned recognition from the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Out of frame, Lee was a dedicated supporter of local art. In 2000, he came across a Gothic Revival-style church built in 1842 while surfing the Internet. He bought it sight unseen and had it trucked down from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and reassembled in Oklahoma City.
He and his wife, Mary Katherine Long “ who in 1998, bought the Chouse, a church-turned home near the University of Oklahoma Campus in Norman “ restored and renovated the Old Trinity Anglican Church, and turned it into a studio and gallery space that became a cornerstone in the revival of the Paseo Arts District.
Lee did it all without lifting a finger … literally.
A quadriplegic since a car accident when he was 16, his photos personified freedom, said his friends. Shot with a pair of Leica rangefinder cameras modified with a cable-release shutter Lee manipulated with his mouth, his striking black-and-white images were masterfully composed to emphasize shadow and contrasting textures. Crumbling bricks of decayed architecture were set against soft, wispy clouds; the undulating curves of a corseted woman bending the plane of a rumpled mattress.
Lee was 53 when he died Oct. 14. His funeral was standing-room-only.
He made an indelible mark on Oklahoma art and artists. For perspective, here’s a snapshot of his work, personality and legacy taken by a few of his fellow photographers.
Kenn Bird, Edmond
Bird met Lee through a group of photographers who would gather regularly, often at Galileo’s in Paseo, to talk shop and network. Bird described Lee as intense and “introverted,” and the pair bonded over a mutual interest in converting old buildings for new uses.
Photographically, Lee was a traditionalist and a master black-and-white imager, Bird said.
“The photographs were just exquisite,” Bird said, adding that taking pictures was just the start of Lee’s talent. “He had really mastered the art of printing.”
Ray Payn, Midwest City
Payn and Lee’s images were displayed side-by-side in a 2008 exhibit at the International Photography Hall of Fame. “A Study in Contrast” juxtaposed Payn’s colorful and whimsical digital photos with Lee’s stark, politically driven silver gelatin prints. Payn said Lee used his camera as a form of activism and artful protest.
“He brought the angst of a generation,” Payn said. “It was very anti-war machine, and had very vivid combinations. It was a very personal statement.”
Lee’s exhibited photos included short quotes, which Payn described as a brilliant mix of art and methodology inspired by advertising.
“He talked to the art,” Payn said, “and the art spoke back to people.”
John Seward, Oklahoma City
Seward said being wheelchair-bound didn’t disable Lee at all. Lee’s work, particularly his nudes, were actually “enhanced” by his atypical angle, Seward said.
“His eye had a lot to do with it,” he said. “The fact that he was working from a seated position gave him a little different perspective than people who are able to stand and walk around.”
He said Lee didn’t hesitate when asked for an opinion.
“He was pretty straightforward about whether he liked your work or not,” Seward said with a laugh.
Keith Ball, Oklahoma City
Ball was shopping for used camera equipment when he met Lee after answering a newspaper ad in the early 1980s. The two “ran in the same circles” ever since, he said.
“There was no way you couldn’t respect him,” Ball said. “He was technically superior “ a good photographer, but probably a better man.”
He said Lee’s work was unmatched technique-wise.
“I wish I could have seen how he printed,” Ball said. “I just know he was keeping something secret in there.” “Joe Wertz
top Tom Lee moved Old Trinity from Canada to the Paseo Arts District in 2000. Photo/Shannon Cornman
bottom Old Trinity of Paseo. Photo/Shannon Cornman