Lee Nye was one of the seminal photographers of Montana. He was born in 1926 in Hysam on the great plains of Eastern Montana. A child of the Depression and a dying West, he understood the cowboys, miners and loggers because he was one of them. Yet, Lee was also a catalyst for the art and writing scene in Missoula in the 60's and 70's. As a dual art and English major during the day and the iconoclastic bartender at Eddie's Club in the evening, he put Missoula on the map as one of the places to be. Nye and his photos are the "leitmotif" that connects the prose and poetry of the Montana writers.
Nye's work falls into three major areas: the female nude, the portrait, and the landscape. There are four categories of nudes. The black and white series portray simple and elegant nudes on black or white backgrounds. The graphites use texture to extend the traditional photographic image. The transpositionals meld the nude with landscape which exquisitely evoke the mountains and eastern prairies of Montana.
Lee's portraits are faces from the 1950's through the 1990's. His most famous portrait is the "Leslie Fiedler" which appeared in Playboy and Time. There are two major collections in the portrait series. "The New Orleans Series", shot in the 1954, is approximately thirty gold toned 8x10 portraits and landscapes.
The Eddie's Club Series is a collection of one hundred and six 16x20 portraits of the blue collar men and women who made Montana. This collection is one of the "must sees" in Missoula
There are also three minor collections. The Charlie B's Collection of two hundred and ten 8x10 portraits of the younger blue collar workers who drank at Charlie B's in the 1980's and 90's.
The Salish Collection is twelve to fifteen Salish Indian portraits.
The final group is a collection of men, women, and children from the 1950's through the 1990's which includes several portraits of Montana writers and artists.
The Montana landscapes capture a dying West. They range from traditional images to delicate high key images of Montana's prairies and mountains.
There is a small collection of color and abstract works. The color transparencies and negatives are portraits and fashion imagery from the 50's. The abstracts are black and white still life images which were shot from the 50's through the 90's.
Lee's body of work consists of approximately eighteen hundred black and white photographs. The work is printed on fiber based photographic paper and is archivally processed and stored. As David J. Spear, photographer and one of Lee's former students said, "Lee's work prints are of a higher quality than most photographers' best work." Elaine De Kooning referred to Lee as "an artist's artist." She purchased four of his pieces for her personal collection.