Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - August 20, 2010

Role reversal

Museum pays tribute to volunteer who documents museum

by Georgia Wells

Wayland Lee has a knack for capturing detail. As resident photographer at Palo Alto's Museum of American Heritage, Lee has spent the past 16 years documenting exhibits and events to preserve them for the public.

In this volunteer position, he's particularly enjoyed capturing images of families visiting exhibits, and of antique cars at the museum's Vintage Vehicles & Family Festival.

"We're really lucky to have him," said Gwenyth Claughton, the museum's executive director.

Now MOAH has found a way to pay Lee's fine-art photography a proper tribute.

Lee's work is included in the museum's current exhibition, "Picture This! A History of Photography." It's a show that not only displays vintage cameras and other historical photographic artifacts from the museum's collection (see separate story), but also showcases Lee's fine-art photos.

Lee said he tends to shoot what interests him, "usually people involved in what they're doing. This is when their personality comes out."

Influenced by American World War II photojournalist W. Eugene Smith and Brazilian humanitarian photographer Sebastiao Salgado, Lee has an eye for what could be called socially intriguing scenes. He documents people in context, in their familiar environment.

One black-and-white print in the current exhibition captures an afternoon visit to his mother-in-law at an elderly day care center. As she sat quietly, Lee noticed her hands folded in her lap and focused on them. In another photo, two boys eat cotton candy at a Chinese New Year's festival in San Francisco's Chinatown.

The exhibit includes both black-and-white darkroom photography from the days when Lee maintained his own basement darkroom, and more recent color digital photography. These days Lee uses a Canon Rebel T2i, "not too big or heavy," and able to do "what (he) wants."

Trained as a graphic designer, Lee had his first job with United Press photographers in San Francisco in 1955. He later worked for the Addison-Wesley publishing company in the '60s in Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

Despite his experience in design, Lee has never before shown his personal work. "I was a closet photographer," he said. That is, until Roger Broussal, a retired conservator from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, saw Lee's work and encouraged the Museum of American Heritage board to show it. "I owe this exhibit to his support and encouragement," Lee said.

The display also features a sample of Lee's camera collection. (He owns more than 50.) Cameras on display include an Olympus from 1973 that Lee found at Goodwill for $45, and an Omega camera from 1954 that Lee bought after watching a wedding photographer carry two of them (to save time when one ran out of film).

"I hope this exhibit will open visitors' eyes to all the interesting and beautiful things around them — such as the time of day or the quality of the light," Lee said. "People should be aware."

What: "Picture This! A History of Photography," an exhibit of historical cameras and prints, as well as fine-art photos by Wayland Lee

Where: The Museum of American Heritage, 351 Homer Ave., Palo Alto

When: Through Oct. 31. The museum is open Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to http://www.moah.org or call 650-321-1004.

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