Baldwin Lee’s stunningly artistic photos of the American South

Walls, Miss., 1984. (Baldwin Lee courtesy of Hunters Point Press / Howard Greenberg Gallery)
Walls, Miss., 1984. (Baldwin Lee courtesy of Hunters Point Press / Howard Greenberg Gallery)

The photos in Baldwin Lee’s namesake book recently published by Hunters Point Press are sumptuously lyrical explorations of America’s Deep South. There is no denying the artistry of the work. When I first went through it, I was repeatedly struck by the classical nature of the body language and compositions.

When I read in an interview by Jessica Bell Brown at the end of the book that Lee had studied with Walker Evans, I wasn’t surprised at all. Learning that he also studied with Minor White was a bit of a shock, but after looking again at the pictures, it made a lot of sense.

Both Evans and White were titans in the world of photography. They didn’t work in a similar way, and indeed, they didn’t think too much of each other’s work. As Lee says in the interview, “Neither man held the other in high esteem. Evans considered White to be flawed by pretentiousness and affect. White saw Evans as not much more than a transcriber of fact.”

In a nutshell, you might say White’s photography was interpretive and Evans’s was more matter-of-fact. That is, of course, a very reductive view — there’s more complexity to their work than that, but it’s a good starting point, especially as you consider Lee’s work.

The photos Lee made (and they were definitely “made”) have a little bit of both photographers’ influence. They are neither wholly factual nor wholly interpretive. They occupy a space somewhere in between. Lee’s work is not documentary, although there are flecks of that in them. They are more of a personal interpretation of life in the South.

As such, the work is definitely that of an outsider. Lee grew up in Manhattan, but cordoned off in what was, at the time, the very insular world of Chinatown. He tells Brown that out of the five hundred people in his school, only two were not Chinese. Lee also grew up with societal pressures that are faced by many Chinese immigrants. He tells Brown, “I am the second oldest of five children. As the first male child in a Chinese immigrant family, I was conferred a special status, with special expectations. My father told me when I was five years old that I would go to MIT, the typical immigrant aspiration.”

Lee would end up fulfilling that expectation — he graduated as his high school’s valedictorian and was accepted into MIT. And although he was miserable studying science and technology, MIT would be the place where he collided with his photographic fate. It’s where he enrolled in a class with Minor White and found the spark of creativity that would propel him the rest of his life. Studying under both White and Evans would prove to be formative for Lee.

And while Lee’s work is that of an outsider, I think it’s important to know that he didn’t just swoop into a community, get what he wanted and then leave. His work is collaborative. He puts it this way:

“I would approach my potential subjects, explain in as detailed a manner as possible what I had seen, and ask for permission to take a photograph. Of course, small talk — where was I from, who would see the photograph, why I selected them — would sometimes ensue. Often permission was granted with no discussion at all. Looking is a two-way street. Not only is the photographer looking, but the potential subject is looking too. What the subject sees carries great weight. For some reason, people would see me positively. I am not sure if it was my race, gender, physicality, dress, demeanor, or anything else. If in a day I asked twenty people for permission to make photographs, nineteen would say yes.”

Collaboration notwithstanding, Lee’s work is an interpretation of the people and places in the photographs. He “made” the photos in the book with the cooperation of the people in them, even as he also directed them, sort of in the way a filmmaker would. As he told Brown:

“I worked with a tripod-mounted 4 × 5 view camera. This type of camera required long exposure times that necessitated standing perfectly still. There was no possibility of making spontaneous or surreptitious photographs. The crucial aspect in making the photograph involved my issuing verbal directions, asking for extremely specific movement of the figure and glance. This is not unlike how a sculptor making a figurative piece conceives of specific gestures and repositions various parts of the body.”

This direction given to produce Lee’s vision is one of the crucial things that sets the work apart from straight documentation. It’s also partly what makes it art, as he underlines with his comparison to the work of a sculptor. The result is a stunningly wrought group of photographs that are artistic to the highest degree.

You can find out more about the book, and buy it, on the publisher’s website, here. And you can see more of Lee’s work on his website, here.