Baldwin Lee, Untitled, ca. mid 1980s, Gelatin Silver Print, 16 x 20 inches, Collection of the Artist
Baldwin Lee was born in 1951 in Brooklyn, New York and was raised in Manhattan’s Chinatown. He studied photography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) with American photographer Minor White and received an M.F.A. from the Yale School of Art, where he studied with photojournalist Walker Evans. After becoming the first Director of the Photography Department at the University of Tennessee in 1982, Lee set out from Knoxville the following year with a 4 x 5 view camera on a 2,000 mile journey of self-discovery, photographing his adopted homeland – the American South.
Lee’s artistic goal for the trip was to partially re-trace and re-photograph the 1930s-40s routes made across the South by his teacher and mentor Walker Evans. Unlike Evans’ iconic depression-era photographs, Lee would eventually focus on documenting Black Americans, many of whom were living in poverty on the fringes of society. As a Chinese-American, Lee described having a semi-pass to enter into Black spaces, allowing him to make intimate portraits of Black life. Over the next seven years Lee traveled thousands of miles on the back roads of the South, taking over 10,000 photographs – producing one of the most important visual documents of and about the American South in the past half century.
With this work, Lee had found his primary subject, and credits his many years of working within Black communities throughout the South as having a “political” effect on his life and art. The compassion Lee felt for those he photographed resonates within his work. Although Lee’s 1980s photographs documenting the human condition of Southern Blacks were known and respected by his fellow photographers and collectors; until recently this work has remained largely unknown and under appreciated by the larger public. In the fall of 2022, Hunter’s Point Press published “Baldwin Lee,” a book of the artist’s 1980s Southern photographs. The book became an instant classic and the first edition sold out in less than a month. The book’s success led to solo exhibitions at Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City and Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla, California. After nearly 40 years, Baldwin Lee is finally being recognized for his groundbreaking work.
Baldwin Lee will feature a selection of over 40 gelatin silver prints culled from thousands of images Lee made across the South in the 1980s. Many of these photographs will be exhibited for the first time. The exhibition will include compelling portraits of Black Americans, as well as a collection of landscape and cityscape images that visually encapsulate the Reagan-era American South.
Baldwin Lee will be on view at Ogden Museum of Southern Art October 5, 2024 through January 26, 2025. The exhibition is curated by Richard McCabe, Curator of Photography, Ogden Museum of Southern Art.SUPPORT BALDWIN LEE