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 at all surprised. It was a bit of a shock to find out that he also studied with Minor White, but after looking at the pictures again 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 in fact they didn’t think much of each other’s work. As Lee says in the interview, “Neither man valued the other very much. Evans viewed White as flawed by hubris and affect. White saw Evans as little more than a copyist of facts.”
In short, one could say that White’s photography was interpretive and Evan’s was more sober. That’s a very limiting view, of course – her work is more complex than that, but it’s a good place to start, especially considering Lee’s work.
The photos Lee took (and they were definitely “taken”) have a bit of the influence of both photographers. They are neither purely factual nor purely interpretive. They occupy a place somewhere in between. Lee’s work is not documentary, although there are flecks of it 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 was sealed off in what was then a very closed world of Chinatown. He tells Brown that of the five hundred people in his school, only two were non-Chinese. Lee also grew up exposed to the societal pressures that many Chinese immigrants face. He tells Brown, “I am the second oldest of five children. As the first male child of a Chinese immigrant family, I was granted a special status with special expectations. My father told me when I was five that I would go to MIT, the typical immigrant wish.”
Lee would eventually live up to that expectation—he graduated first in his high school year and was accepted into MIT. And though he was abysmal at studying science and technology, MIT would be where he collided with his photographic destiny. There he enrolled in a class with Minor White and found the spark of creativity that would fuel him for the rest of his life. Studying with both White and Evans would prove 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 rush into a community, get what he wanted, and then leave. His work is collaborative. He puts it this way:
“I approached my potential subjects, explained in as much detail as I could what I had seen, and asked permission to take a picture. Of course, sometimes small talk followed – where am I from, who would see the photo, why I chose her. Permission was often granted without discussion. Searching is not a one-way street. Not only the photographer looks, but also the potential subject. What the subject sees carries great weight. For some reason people would see me positively. I’m not sure if it was my race, gender, physicality, dress, demeanor or anything else. If I asked twenty people in one day for permission to take pictures, nineteen would say yes.”
Notwithstanding the collaboration, 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, although he also directed them, as a filmmaker would. As he told Brown:
“I was working with a tripod-mounted 4×5 view camera. This type of camera required long exposure times that required a complete standstill. There was no way to make spontaneous or clandestine recordings. The key aspect of creating the photo was that I gave verbal instructions and asked for very specific movement of the figure and gaze. This is not unlike how a sculptor making a figurative piece conceptualizes specific gestures and repositions various body parts.”
This direction given to produce Lee’s vision is one of the crucial things that differentiates the work from a pure documentary. Part of that makes it art, too, as he emphasizes by comparing it to the work of a sculptor. The result is a stunningly elaborate group of photographs that are artistic in the highest degree.
You can learn more about and buy the book on the publisher’s website here. And you can see more of Lee’s work here on his website.