Baldwin Lee: A mesmerising chronicle of Black southern life in the 1980s

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine: Tradition & Identity. Available to purchase at thebjpshop.com.

Published four decades after the images were made, Lee’s latest photobook shines an honest light on the hardships endured by many, which still prevail today

The notion of justice takes many forms: a verdict, a vendetta, a comeuppance. It can also look like a spotlight shone on an injustice that has long been minimised or denied. With his new self-titled monograph, Baldwin Lee joins a tradition of photographers who have delivered justice with their cameras for penurious Black people in the southern United States. During several road trips between 1983 and 1989, Lee documented African Americans living, playing, loving and surviving, often amid the grinding poverty one might associate with an impoverished nation or another era – anywhere but America, one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. 

Baldwin Lee, published by Hunters Point Press, is a collection of 88 black-and-white photographs, mainly portraits. It is a mesmerising study of characters and their conditions, the foremost of which is Lee himself. Indeed, the photographer, a first-generation Chinese American raised in New York, seems an unlikely author of this acutely intuitive depiction of Black southern life given his lack of intimate connection to its cultural, racial and social realities. 

Lee was born in 1951 and grew up “totally sheltered” in Chinatown with his parents and four siblings. “I went to a public school that only had two non- Chinese students, even though this was New York,” Lee says, speaking from his home in Nashville, Tennessee. “Chinatown was my exclusive world, and it wasn’t until I went to college that I realised there’s other stuff going on here.” 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. Yale introduced Lee to white people and white privilege. He had never seen such excessive amounts of status, money and access. It made him contemplate why certain groups enjoyed such wealth and power while others did not. 

“One thing that has been with me since I can remember is a sense of fairness and justice. So that, coupled with learning about the larger political, social and cultural world, primed me to combine my interest in photography, my interest in larger cultural and social issues, and my interest in political issues. I had found my subject. I knew for the first time that I was going to use the preparation of my life for a purpose. I was thrilled. I felt empowered.”

Charleston, SC, 1984 © Baldwin Lee.

It would take Lee nearly a decade after leaving Yale to find the right setting for a body of images that would encapsulate this artistic calling. In 1982, he received an offer to teach at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he is now a professor emeritus. During the spring term of his first year, he took a 2000-mile road trip from Tennessee through Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and Georgia, exploring his new surroundings. Employing a tripod-mounted 4×5 view camera, he photographed a range of subjects – architecture, pastoral scenes, people, Black and white, well-to-do and not, children and adults. But back in the darkroom, one subject emerged as his true interest. 

“When I developed the whole set, the pictures confirmed what I had begun discovering on my trip: I was more interested in being around, talking to, and interacting with Black Southern Americans. It was not anything planned. It just happened.” He went out, again and again, multiple times each summer for the next six years. Lee visited cities but most enjoyed straying from the main interstate roads into tiny-town America, where he says things got genuine and interesting. The photographer produced more than 10,000 images on those trips, a small selection of which editor Barney Kulok has brought together in the new publication. The book also includes an interview between Lee and curator Jessica Bell Brown and an essay by the writer Casey Gerald. 

“Growing up, I knew poverty in a purely conceptual way. I didn’t really know what it was until I saw it, and it was like a slap in the face”

Nuanced portrait

Although the communities Lee captured are overwhelmingly poor, there is more to see in Baldwin Lee than just poverty because there is more to human beings than their station in life. There is tenderness in the outstretched hand of a young girl on an elder’s shoulder. There is heat in two lovers embracing in a doorway. Dignity and faith in crisp church-going attire. Swagger and sorrow in the eyes of almost every young Black man, including the one who stars in the book’s opening spread. Even when no one is present in a frame, you immediately think about how someone might live in it. 

Lee gave his subjects stage direction, but there could be no orchestration of the world around them. You catch in the periphery, or splashed across an entire backdrop, all the perverse ways entrenched deprivation expresses itself. Homes so dilapidated it is miraculous that they are upright let alone habitable. A flooded field with a house plopped in the middle leaves you fearful that the family inside needs to survive on what it yields. Kitchens wallpapered with disassembled cereal boxes. An avalanche of rusting automobile carcasses cascading into a river. A little boy looking forlorn on a pocked stoop holding the hand of an even smaller girl looking to him for comfort. Tender young faces rendered ghostlike behind a shredded screen door that can keep out neither insects nor any other form of danger. 

“Growing up, I knew poverty in a purely conceptual way,” Lee reflects. “I didn’t really know what it was until I saw it, and it was like a slap in the face. I’m photographing during the Reagan administration when he’s there talking about the trickle-down economy. Trickle-down where? I became outraged. I could not believe this was America.”

Untitled, 1983-89 © Baldwin Lee.

Lee does not hit us over the head with his “righteous indignation”, as Gerald describes it in his essay, Insistent Life. Instead, he helps us cultivate our own the same way he did: by developing an affinity for a people and wanting more for them than what their lives are offering. Indeed, a keen sense of people led Lee to pick subjects whose fate a viewer can quickly become invested in: “With every person, I saw something about them before I approached them. And it has to do with how somebody’s outward demeanour can convey something about their identity or condition. 

There are infinite ways a person can stand, hold their head, glance in one direction or another. Some people do it better than others without being conscious of it, and they’re presenting themselves to the world as extraordinary individuals.” For 141 pages, the juxtaposition of these remarkable people and these unforgiving circumstances ignites our indignation. Over a century since the abolition of slavery and a cocktail of racism and the dehumanising invisibility reserved for the poor and disenfranchised still circumscribe the lives of these US citizens. As Bell Brown astutely notes in her conversation with Lee, the American South is “a place that cannot run from its history”. 

Personal reckoning

Lee lost track of the number of trips he took across the rural South, but he remembers burning through three cars. He eventually ended the project in 1989 for two reasons. First, he found that he had become creatively repetitive. Second, he says he woke up one day to find himself on the wrong side of the line that separates witness from voyeur. It happened around the time his first child was born. Lee’s mother came to visit from New York and wanted to buy a crib for the baby. Lee and his wife thought of getting an antique, but a friend warned them that they were unsafe because the slats were not regulation distance. 

“On the next trip, I was in Augusta, Georgia, and photographed in a funeral home. A couple had just lost their baby because they didn’t have a crib, and the sleeping baby had gotten caught in the sheets. So I’m living a life where I can consider what kind of crib to buy, and these people don’t have anything. You can’t compartmentalise this stuff forever. It got to the point where I felt guilty, exploitative. I saw my ambition beginning to make me become somebody I didn’t want to be. So I said, it’s over.” 

Rosedale, MS, 1985 © Baldwin Lee.

It is understandable why Lee stopped, but even his sense of justice and love of a great subject do not explain why he started – or why he kept going. He explains that he ceded to the compulsion to take more than 10,000 photographs because of two images he did not take: Jacob Riis’ Mulberry Bend, shot in the late 19th century, and McPherson & Oliver’s 1863 image The Scourged Back. Riis’ photograph depicts the bend of Mulberry Street in New York’s Chinatown where Lee grew up blissfully unaware of white people and the struggles of previous immigrant groups. 

The Scourged Back, meanwhile, depicts Gordon, a formerly enslaved man with grotesque scars on his back from repeated whippings. “The Riis photograph revealed the flaw of my beliefs of my origin and identity whereas the McPherson & Oliver carte-de-visite showed the betrayal of the fundamental tenets of justice,” says Lee. 

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. Lee told Gerald that he did not enter this project on a do-gooder’s mission, but he was undoubtedly aware that his photographs told a story that America would prefer not to broadcast. And this is why Baldwin Lee is a very radical act of goodness and justice. 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. Look very closely at what you don’t want to see, at whom you fail to recognise and celebrate as your own. 

Baldwin Lee is published by Hunters Point Press, priced $60. An exhibition of works by Baldwin Lee will be on view from 22 September to 12 November 2022, at Howard Greenberg Gallery, 14 East 57th Street, 8th Floor, New York, New York.