Opinion | The Troubling and Humane Photography of Baldwin Lee – The New York Times


NASHVILLE — When Baldwin Lee set out in March 1983 to photograph the American South, he was a stranger in a strange land. The New York-born son of Chinese immigrants, he had moved to Knoxville to establish the photography program at the University of Tennessee. When he left on his first of many photographic trips across the South, he was open to whatever subjects might draw his attention. “I had no agenda, no plan,” he told The New Yorker’s Chris Wiley. “I took pictures of everything: landscapes, architecture, close-ups, still lifes, pictures at night, people, old, young, white, Black, poor, rich. I just wanted to see.”

Along the way, though, he became attuned to the colossal racial injustice still rampant in the American South. He found his subject: Black Southerners living out their daily lives against a backdrop of poverty.

Now, nearly 40 years later, his first solo exhibition is on display at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York through Nov. 12. The show coincides with the publication of a newly released monograph of Mr. Lee’s photographs. They represent only a small portion of the nearly 10,000 images Mr. Lee created during the 1980s.

On every possible level, this is an extraordinary body of work: moving, illuminating, troubling, above all humane. Mr. Lee did not frame his photographs to appall, although any minimally empathetic person will be appalled by the conditions they often capture. He framed them in a way that most often features, within the surroundings of brutal poverty, human beings whose expression, gesture or stance insists on their own profound dignity. On a self that is irreducible and irreplaceable.

Mr. Lee studied with Minor White as an undergraduate at M.I.T. and with Walker Evans as a graduate student at Yale. It is easier to see Mr. Evans’s influence. In some ways, these photos work as a kind of Reagan-era analog of the images Mr. Evans took of white tenant farmers as James Agee’s collaborator in what became the genre-defying book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” There were financially comfortable Black people in the South by the time Mr. Lee arrived, and impoverished white people remained, too, but the Southerners he felt drawn to document were the many Black Americans for whom the promise of civil-rights legislation had not been realized, or at least had not been sufficient.

In 1983, the South was nearly two decades past the civil rights era and nearly five decades past the Depression-ravaged Alabama of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” and the Mississippi of Eudora Welty’s “Photographs.” Nevertheless, the poverty Mr. Lee found on his trips across the region was the same poverty his precursors had found decades earlier.

This kind of …….


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