Born in New York City to Chinese parents, “creativity was never brought up in my childhood,” photographer Baldwin Lee recalled in the introduction to his new monograph, the eponymous Baldwin Lee. “Redemption occurred by surprise in my sophomore year when I enrolled in a photography class.” He had two formative, formidable influences—Minor White while an undergrad at MIT, Walker Evans while doing a master’s at Yale—who “were the equivalent of having studied with Matisse and Cézanne.” Lee was briefly Evans’ personal printer, handling negatives from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Lee—who established the photography program at the University of Tennessee in 1982 and taught there for over three decades—found his own photographic subject while traveling through the American South. During every break from teaching between 1983-89, he went on the road. He gravitated towards Black neighborhoods, “where indicators of success were replaced with the stigma of neglect,” Lee wrote. “If I had trouble finding these places, I would visit the town police station telling them that I was a photographer with expensive cameras and handed over a highlighter marker, asking them to circle areas I should avoid. Of course, I did the opposite.”
He worked with a cumbersome, indiscreet tripod-mounted 4×5 view camera, which required long exposure times but yielded stunning results aesthetically. Most interactions with locals occurred in front yards and on porches. He would explain his approach, then give his subjects specific directives—but always allowed for the serendipitous: “There is a beauty in this process that exploits the unintended.”