Baldwin Lee’s Empathetic Photos of the American South

As a new exhibition of his work opens in New York, Baldwin Lee talks about how he captured black life in 1980s America’s South – and why he ended up doing it camera down

Baldwin Lee He first encountered the American South in 1982 when he began teaching at the University of Tennessee. He didn’t know much, so he drove all the way down to Tallahassee and back. “I intentionally stayed as far off the interstates as possible to understand what day-to-day life is like,” says Lee. The journey changed him forever; When it was finished, he knew exactly what to photograph.

When I ask Lee what drew him to the South and the black Americans he photographed, Lee says he needs to start over – his childhood. Born in Brooklyn and raised in New York’s Chinatown in the 1950s, he “grew up in a closed world, just like any small southern town.” At Cambridge and New Haven—the former as an undergraduate at MIT, the latter as a graduate of Yale School of Art—Lee received an education that “wasn’t laid down in any curriculum.” At both institutions, Lee experienced a new social order, “the peculiarities of white America.” There was the roommate who wore a tuxedo jacket and made martinis, surnames that alluded to prominent families. “It was fascinating to me,” Lee notes, “and also repulsive because at that point I realized I didn’t belong to any of those things. It wasn’t a systematic exclusion, but it was an exclusion based on non-interaction.”

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While at Yale, Lee studied under Walker Evans. And much like Evans’ photographs, Lee’s photographs are precise, with an eye for contrast and symmetry (particularly evident in his landscapes), and marked by a keen sense of balance, clarity, and control. As with Evans’ groundbreaking American Photographsthey feel like vital records, relics not just of specific moments in time but of history itself, history depicted on people’s faces and bodies – here, the violent history of the American South.

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The trip, Lee tells me, “put everything into really sharp focus. It was no longer conceptual or ideological.” The South offered a “true” education that both amazed and troubled him. “The first thing that really struck me was that if I approached an older black person and started speaking, the person would assume a lower hierarchical social stance compared to me. His whole attitude and behavior would change. there [would] be a subtle bowing of the head and the gaze would always be down. There was that kind of subservience that was triggered because I wasn’t black. It made clear what the history of enslavement and subjugation had done to an entire population. It just hit me right in the pit of my stomach.”

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Lee’s process was deeply collaborative. He used a 4 x 5 viewfinder camera that had to be mounted on a tripod. “It avoids the possibility of stealth photography,” says Lee. “You have to ask someone’s permission and sign a contract with the person you want to photograph.” The first question people asked when Lee approached them, he told me, was, “Why do you want a photo of do me?” “There’s no bullshit to answer that question,” says Lee. “You have to be able to say why with certainty and precision. It’s a disarming question. When faced with a question, I must have an answer. It could have to do with a graceful stance, like someone leaning against a car. It may have to do with how that person laughed or talked to friends. But it always starts with something very specific.”

For a time, Lee continued to take photographs. He traveled more and became “fearless”. “I would speak to anyone, anywhere, anytime, anywhere. Day and night I knocked on doors.” The material seemed endless. “It had this appeal. I drew bucketfuls of water from a well that would never dry up. I just couldn’t exhaust the subject.”

Eventually, Lee stopped taking photos altogether. French philosopher Simone Weil warned on the issue of attention: “The ability to pay attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it’s a miracle.” In an interview with Jessica Bell Brown that accompanies the work, Lee gives one of the reasons He announced that he “could no longer reconcile the difference between the lives of the people I photographed and the life I lived.” There is credit in putting the camera away, knowing when it’s time to go; there are other perspectives that elude capture.

Baldwin Lee is on view at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York until November 12, 2022. An accompanying monograph, Baldwin Leewill be published by Hunters Point Press in September.

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