I was back in Palm Springs yesterday, planted like a palm tree amidst the gorgeous oddness of its windswept spotless streets, sitting at Starbucks amongst groups of people who looked as if they were from an elderly Mid-Western tribe.
On this day I was acting, as I always do when working, as a videographer. A writer friend had invited me along to assist him for an interview with 94-year-old Leland Lee, a photographer, who had shot the concrete space ship Elrod House in 1969.
The Elrod House, designed by John Lautner in 1968, is a home so iconic and so very weird. Like the latter part of the decade in which is what built, The Elrod is unhinged and sybaritic, self-absorbed and spacey, built for joy and sex and parties, featured in a James Bond movie and now on sale for $14 million.
Giant egos surely must have matched horns in the desert, 43 years ago, when architect and client carved and bulldozed the massive circular house onto a high mountain overlooking Palm Springs.
Architect and client are long dead, but living, still very much alive, is short, smart, stylish and self-effacing Leland Lee, who was only born in 1918, and achieved Mid-Century acclaim for assisting Julius Shulman in the photography of Los Angeles at its Post-War acme.
I have always hated the title “assistant”, having worn the dog collar myself, but here was an accomplished individual whose body of work burned up in a fire 10 years ago, but who still carries himself with a noble kindness and generosity.
Brown leather pants, a white linen jacket and printed silk shirt with a purple necklace, this was what he was wearing yesterday, and if clothing can give some indication of character, than Leland must be an eccentric, artistic, self-confident person, and that is how he introduced himself yesterday.
We drove up a long road and passed guards who ushered us into a cave-like driveway, and we entered the dark, soaring, circular living room where Leland’s framed photographs hung on the walls, and where we would film him as he spoke about each image.
What emerged from the interview was his quiet verisimilitude and the dignity of a gentleman who, without exaggeration and with calm exactitude, spoke about his photography and his life; his triumphs and his tragedies, with focus, clarity, deliberation and observation.
I was there, almost to witness and maybe to absorb a moral lesson of life, one that I have to teach myself continually, that non-conformity and truth, the willingness to be honest and to avoid grandiosity, those qualities that I think I have, will not always pay-off monetarily in the end. The 94-year-old cheerfully admitted he had never signed a contract before, and he didn’t seem to live for legal and financial judgment.
I have been battling, for many years now, between self-destruction and self-creation, wondering whether my own self-expression, in print and photo, was endangering my future. For surely Googling “Andy Hurvitz” might reveal the truth of who I was.
And then I met Leland Lee yesterday, and saw a man who had got on and survived, and did it in his own way, not always triumphantly, but truthfully.