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Baldwin Lee

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Several months later during an unrelated visit to New York City, I met Barney in his studio in Long Island City. We discussed how he found his way to the South and started photographing African Americans in the greater South. Browsing through the stellar examples included, one can almost sense the ghosts of Minor White and Walker Evans, one perched on each shoulder of Lee.

There is an atmosphere of languor throughout, the sense of time slowed down by the intense heat and humidity of the south and the weight of too much time spent killing time. I just remembered a photo you might enjoy seeing shot from the sidelines during one of the high school football games in the early 1960s. Four years ago, Barney Kulok of Hunter Point Press happened to be in New Orleans and saw several of my prints in the Ogden Museum.

Comprising a mere fraction of the estimated 10,000 photographs that Lee, the New York-born son of a Hong Kong emigrant, made on various extended road trips around Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana between 1982 and 1989, they are nevertheless a revelatory record of a time and a place and a people. The intention is to display ads that are relevant and engaging for the individual user and thereby more valuable for publishers and third party advertisers. Baldwin Lee The level of my ambition in pursuing my photography of Black Americans in the South was exceedingly high, but my ambition for recognition was minimal. Nearly 40 years after Baldwin Lee’s initial 2,000-mile road trip, the first solo exhibition of his work in New York is on view at the gallery from September 22 through November 12, 2022.

For the young Lee, who had lived “a very insular life” in Chinatown, White’s presence was transformative. Lee did not frame his photographs to appall, although any minimally empathetic person will be appalled by the conditions they often capture. White strolled into lectures barefoot and encouraged his often bemused technology students to heighten their awareness of the creative process by practising meditation and reading Zen Buddhist texts.This might be accurate as a very rough model, but it doesn’t account for regular distortions in the strata. He saw his camera less as a propaganda machine and more as a tool to testify that these lives, mundane and epic and “graceful,” mattered. For seven years in the 1980s, Chinese-American New York photographer Baldwin Lee cut an eccentric figure around the Southern states of the USA. He lived for forty more years with the sobering awareness that despite the advantages of experience, knowledge, support, money, and stature he was unable to do what he had done as a young man.

Because in a country that does not recognise the value of Black lives, especially poor ones, with this monograph, Lee is saying: look over here, America, at this evident failure of equal opportunity and protection. Chasing photographs one could never have taken evokes echoes of Greek tragedy, but ultimately it served to mould Lee into the kind of photographer who recognised something worth seeing on those backroads of the American South. Revisiting some of the places Evans had photographed a half century earlier, it seemed that nothing had changed.

Lee isolates the stopping point around a single photo op during which he realized regretfully that his urge to objectify was at odds with his humanity. Since then, Lee has happily worked as a professor of art at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He’d been culturally isolated as a youth, immersed in New York’s Chinatown with little exposure to the greater art world, nor deeper American currents of generational inequalities and racial strife.

The results, shot in monochrome, are intimate and compelling in their depiction of the ordinary lives of black Americans born into, and confined by, the kind of poverty that, as Lee points out, had remained “almost unchanged since emancipation”. Episode 319: Baldwin Lee is an American photographer whose recent eponymous book was published by Hunters Point Press. That ’other stuff’ was the profound inequality in America, which he first confronted at Yale University, where he pursued a Master of Fine Arts in 1973 under Walker Evans. BL The ambitions I had for my work at the time of its making did include—although in a fairy-tale way—a wider audience, but the urgency to make this happen never occurred.The large format means that every detail is there to explore: a young man protectively puts a hand on a stack of four cassettes on the hood of a car; a kid provocatively presents a dollar bill to Lee’s lens, a battered Diana Ross gatefold LP teeters atop a totem pole of TVs and hi-fi, as a stern little girl stares us down. For historical accuracy it is important to point out that Joseph Bellows Gallery exhibited Baldwin’s work back in the Spring of 2020 after Joe discovered a print of the work in an obscure auction and tracked him down. With hindsight, what I got from Minor was the confirmation that photography could be a creative and imaginative pursuit, that it was more than just a tool for documentary. Baldwin went into detail about why he stopped the project and his general thoughts about photography, its discourses, and its ethics or lack thereof.

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