A selection of atmospheric images and graceful portraits of Black communities in the American south
(Hunters Point Press, 2022)
Baldwin Lee has a pedigreed photography background: in the early seventies, he studied with Minor White at MIT, and thereafter with Walker Evans at Yale University. After teaching on the East Coast, Lee inaugurated the photography program in 1982 at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he spent over three decades as a professor.
At the beginning of his placement, Lee—a first generation Chinese American—set off to explore the shambling corners of the American South. Between 1983 and 1989, he pursued this regional survey while on breaks from the academic rotation. He was drawn to photographing Black communities: children and adults, families and individuals. The resulting portfolio of atmospheric images and graceful portraits was only recently collected as a monograph, published by Hunters Point Press. Publisher Barney Kulok plucked eighty-eight images from the nearly ten-thousand black-and-white negatives Lee produced in the eighties. In parallel, a solo exhibition of Lee’s work on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery this fall presents thirty photographs from the book.
Lee described his process, in the published conversation with curator Jessica Bell Brown, as beginning with unfolding a map, then traveling one hundred miles away from his home in any direction (“far enough from my known world to be prepared to accept the new”), then culminating with “flawed theater.” He expressly gravitated toward the edges of towns “where indicators of success were replaced with the stigma of neglect.”
It was likely startling for locals to see an outsider to their community hauling a tripod-mounted, large-format camera. Lee’s distinctive oversized apparatus necessitated a conversational prelude before any shot, to situate both his materials and motivations. Lee noted: “Looking is a two-way street. Not only is the photographer looking, but the potential subject is looking too.” In one image, the unsparing gaze of two little boys—each sporting matching elastic-waist shorts—appear to scrutinize Lee much more severely than he them, their small brows furrowed. In another image, a young woman clutching an infant to her breast stands on a rickety porch, cocking her head slightly, her lidded eyes inquisitive, as though she’s trying to metabolize being considered even as she’s posing.
Lee’s photographs present a population—though battered and struggling—with elegance and dignity. There are visible signs of poverty: craggy front porches and screens riddled with holes; walls pockmarked and stained; roads muddy and branches bare. The youthful subjects often appear stern-faced and self-awarely poised; the adults often appear weary, propped against trees and telephone poles and trucks. The melancholy infusing these circumstances is never chronicled from a vantage that is pitying, only deeply empathetic and profoundly arresting in its raw vulnerability. The photographs of interiors especially confirm this: the details of disrepair, be it clipped-together curtains or discolored walls, never overwhelm the portrait subject, and in fact endear them to the viewer even more for being so candid.
Lee made these images conscientiously, knowing that there was no way to circumvent the charged and often ugly history of this American panorama. In an essay by the writer Casey Gerald, Lee clarified to him: “I didn’t go in with some simple pronouncement that I wanted to expose the injustice that Black Americans had to endure. It’s not some kind of dumbass, do-gooder, kumbaya… It’s not any of that.”
Gerald himself notes that there is “so much similarity between Black life and the lives you see in these thirty-year-old images, a few outfit changes notwithstanding.” The vintage images only burnish this spirit of fortitude in Black life, as—from our contemporary perspective—systemic racism and socio-economic disparity continue, if also alongside what Gerald refers to as “Black cultural resurrection.”
Lee’s career as a photographer was finite. “Unwittingly, this project culminated in a set of personal circumstances that could never be duplicated again,” he told Bell Brown. He is not trying to chase anything now: “There is nothing in the world sadder than people attempting to recapitulate their prior work. It’s Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire—longing for her previous glamour.” He has relinquished his camera, and only occasionally deploys the one on his phone. That scarcity makes his images even more remarkable for the access Lee gives us to the past, and for the complexity they add to the cultural conversation today. It’s the flawed theater we need.