At 72, and almost 30 years after he gave up photography, Baldwin Lee is having a long overdue moment. Following the publication of an eponymously titled monograph last year, which led the New Yorker to call him “one of the great overlooked luminaries of American picture-making”, a selection of his evocative images of black life in the American south is currently on show for the first time in Britain, at the David Hill Gallery, London. 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.
His subjects are the black Americans he encountered in the mainly rural, often desperately deprived, southern communities where segregation still cast a long shadow. Many of them had never spoken to an Asian person before.
“I was an object of curiosity,” he tells me over the phone from his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he has lived since the early 80s. “And when I knocked on people’s doors, which I did from time to time, I was sometimes viewed with a degree of suspicion, but I’m a very likable person and not at all intimidating. The fact that I could speak English very well was also disarming for some people. I’d basically tell them my story, explain what I was doing, and offer them a print for their time.”
Lugging a heavy 4×5 camera mounted on a tripod, Lee would cover many miles on foot every day, shooting landscapes and interiors as well as portraits. “There was no way to make a surreptitious photograph on a camera like mine, nor had I any interest in doing so,” he says. “Every photograph was a collaboration: an interchange of conversation and ideas and then the granting of permission. It was a very straightforward exchange, because I had no ulterior motive. I was just interested in each person as an individual.”
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”. Eschewing the socially concerned ethos that often underpinned the visual documentation of race and poverty in America at that time, Lee’s calm, measured portraits speak of a deeper engagement with his subjects. Their plight is suggested in tiny, but telling, details of their surroundings: the cramped interiors of weatherbeaten wooden shacks with holy pictures and wooden crosses pinned to the walls and torn and frayed mosquito screens stretched tight across the door frames.
People pose for his camera easefully or with an engagement that is direct and, at times, almost defiant. 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. Here and there, though, a few portraits seem to carry a subtle metaphorical charge: a young man in shorts and T-shirt, his hand outstretched above him to grasp a coiled rope dangling from a tree; four young children holding hands beneath an ominously towering federal courthouse that looms out of the encroaching darkness. When I mention these two images, Lee sounds wary. “I had such trepidation about those two pictures that they came close to not being made,” he says. “I never wanted my photographs to be the equivalent of someone on a soapbox, shouting. I wanted them to be open ended and subject to the many different interpretations that people brought to them.”
For all that, the experience of travelling in the deep south shook him up and sharpened his sense of injustice. “You have to understand that, until then, I had not experienced communities that were exclusively black or encountered the kind of poverty that had not changed in a hundred years. I was a child of the 1960s, who was conscious of unfairness and justice, but the first trip I made to the south in 1983 awakened my politics. It stunned me that my fellow Americans had to live like this.”
Walker Evans would often knock on the darkroom door and present me with an ice-cream sundae
Lee grew up in New York’s Chinatown, where his father had inherited a thriving business supplying noodles to Chinese restaurants in the city and beyond. “My parents had a set of very predictable ambitions for me,” he says. “When I was five, my father told me I was going to go to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and, years later, I did.”
To his father’s delight, Lee enrolled there in 1972, but immediately felt out of place and “utterly miserable” in an environment geared towards advanced scientific and technological research. He found solace in a class called The Creative Audience, which was taught by the esteemed photographer Minor White. Designed to expose students to areas outside their immediate field of study, it reflected not just White’s thoughts on art, but his interest in eastern mysticism, religion and philosophy. 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. He even offered back rubs to the more uptight among them.
For the young Lee, who had lived “a very insular life” in Chinatown, White’s presence was transformative. “Everything about him was stunning to me,” he says, still sounding slightly awestruck. “He had the palest, Paul Newman eyes and this shock of white hair going everywhere. He was also the first openly gay man I had encountered and at a time when it was difficult and complicated for someone like him to navigate in the world.
“Minor was a total eccentric, who didn’t hesitate to share his experiences of taking peyote and other psychedelic substances. I was this babe in the woods and the whole experience just blindsided me.”
More importantly perhaps, White’s radical ideas about photography – he was a pioneer of abstraction in his own work – were liberating to Lee, who suddenly found the perfect outlet for his own hitherto suppressed creativity. “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. He introduced me to the existence of art and showed me that a life in photography was a distinct possibility. I really don’t know what I would have done with my life if not for his class.”
On the journey home from his graduation ceremony, Lee told his father he was going to pursue photography. A long silence ensued. “I looked at him and saw a tear roll down his cheek,” recalls Lee. “He had never shown such emotion before.” His father died six months later. “I regret,” says Lee quietly, “that he never saw that it was possible for me to lead a productive and rewarding creative life.”
Lee went on to study for an MFA at Yale, where he came under the influence of another iconic photographer, Walker Evans, later becoming his darkroom assistant. “They could not have been more different,” he says of his two famous mentors, “Minor was unambiguous in his view that Walker was nothing more than a glorified documentarian. Walker thought that Minor was an artsy-fartsy blowhard.”
What was Evans like to work for? “Oh, he was an exemplary member of the American aristocracy, a dandy who loved to wear expensive English clothes. He enjoyed having company and was very sweet to me. He would often knock on the darkroom door and present me with an ice-cream sundae.” Evans died in April 1975, the year Lee graduated from Yale. White died in June 1976, the same month in which Imogen Cunningham, a pioneer of modernist photography, also died. “It was,” says Lee, “the passing of a significant era.”
Despite his shyness, Lee was extraordinarily single-minded in his pursuit of photography, at one point spending an entire year after college willing himself to regularly approach strangers on the streets of Boston. “It was very hard for me and the pictures I made were horrible, but I succeeded in transforming myself into a fearless photographer. I was determined. More than that, I was compelled – I did not take no for an answer. So, when I first travelled to the south, I was ready.”
Often, on his arrival in a new town in Alabama or Mississippi, he would head straight to the police headquarters to ask for advice on which areas he should avoid for his own safety. Wherever the local sheriff warned him not to go, he went. Did he encounter any animosity on his lone travels? “The only hostility I experienced was from white people,” he replies. “I had a number of run-ins that were not pleasant – guns pulled on me, a rifle aimed at my face. There is a lot at stake there for some people when they suddenly see an outsider, especially an outsider with a camera.”
Lee returned to the south regularly over a six-year period, amassing a huge archive, most of which remains, at his insistence, unseen. “I just printed the ones I thought were good when I shot them,” he says. “I have no idea what the rest look like.” If his initial embrace of the medium in 1972 was epiphanic, his abandoning of it in the mid-90s was dramatically abrupt. His reasons, he insists, were twofold. “Towards the end, I became suspicious of the ease with which I could make good pictures,” he explains. “I have an absolutist attitude to creativity: you should stop when you are in your prime.”
More tellingly, his countless road trips through the south had inevitably taken their toll, both physically and psychologically. “It was hard,” he says. “The travelling, the cheap hotels, the long days drenched in sweat, the fact that I had very little money. More than that, you cannot see what I was seeing every day without being profoundly affected by it. It started to weigh on me really heavily. When I decided to quit, I really did quit.”
Since then, Lee has happily worked as a professor of art at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. His story is a singular and surprising one, all the more so because the recent acclaim that has followed the rediscovery of his body of work is, he insists, of little consequence to him. “I’m not like the vast majority of artists because I don’t have that kind of public ambition. Now, though, I am being drawn into a world I have shunned for so long.”
How does he feel about that?
“I can’t say I’m excited,” he says, “If anything, I find it amusing.”
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