In the 1980s, the photographer took a two-thousand-mile road trip through the American South, making portraits that glow with beauty and trust.
Portfolios – October 13, 2021
By Casey Gerald
The afternoon I spoke with Baldwin Lee about his photographs, I thought of Little Richard.
Specifically, a short clip from a 1973 documentary about Jimi Hendrix, whose early career included a stint in Little Richard’s band. In the clip, Little Richard holds court from a piano bench. He wears a periwinkle-blue jumpsuit. A gray, sequined headband keeps his wild curls at bay, kinda. His face is beat. As the clip opens, Little Richard’s fantastic face and hair fill the frame. He was a star, he says of Jimi. He lifts his hands high and wide as the camera pans out . . . then lifts his eyes to the ceiling, swivels on the bench, turns back to the interviewer, arms still high: When I got him, he was a star. Sly told you that everybody is a star! The only problem is, some people haven’t been put in the dipper and poured back out on the world.
Ten years later, Baldwin Lee stopped through Macon, Georgia, Little Richard’s hometown. Macon was one of many southern towns Lee visited at the start of what would become an almost decade-long project. He drove a Dodge Dart Sport. In each town, he left his car and walked the streets, carrying a 4-by-5-inch view camera, searching for someone to photograph, wilting in the summer heat. Sometimes, he took his map to the local police station. He’d tell them he was a photographer with expensive equipment and hand over a highlighter so they could circle the neighborhoods to avoid. “Of course,” he says in an interview with curator Jessica Bell Brown, in a forthcoming monograph published by Hunters Point Press, “I did the opposite.”
Lee had received perhaps the best photography education one could ask for in the United States in the twentieth century. His father—who fought in World War II with the U.S. Army (although he was a Chinese national) and later studied architecture at Pratt Institute on the G.I. Bill—told Lee when he was five years old that he would go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lee fulfilled the prophecy in his own way, taking up photography there as a student of Minor White. Next came the Yale School of Art, where he studied with Walker Evans and earned an MFA in 1975. Lee served as Evans’s personal printer, frequently stayed at the legend’s house in Connecticut, and handled some of Evans’s greatest negatives from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He’d spent enough time with the so-called best and brightest—or, in his words, “eggheads and all the rest”—so, in 1983, he took a two-thousand-mile road trip through the South.
On that first journey, Lee says he photographed “landscapes, cityscapes, night studies, interiors, and portraits of people—white and Black, old and young, rural and urban, well-to-do and poor.” He proofed the film and realized that what interested him most were the pictures of poor Black Americans. “I was certain I had found my subject,” Lee states in the interview with Brown.
I pause here to confess that I felt a little sick with worry when I first read those words. Was Lee another in the long line of photographers, preachers, politicians, et cetera, et cetera, who seized upon the wretched of the earth as subject-cum-spectacle-cum- cash-cow? Then, I spent more time with one image—of a woman with her wigs.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come back to this photograph. I come back because it reminds me of my mother, who dragged little me to wig shops all over Dallas, and because I have known and loved so many other women who also loved their wigs. I know one thing thanks to them: there’s not a chance in hell this woman trotted out her wigs for some strange camera-toting man unless she liked him. Unless she trusted him a little bit. And since she trusted Baldwin Lee enough to show her wigs, I was inclined to trust him enough to call and ask why. Why these people, this project?
“The kind of photography that I was most interested in was the kind that involved going outside, involved physically and psychically and mentally and emotionally stepping into an unknown world, an unknown situation,” he explains. “It wasn’t just for entertainment, amusement, or diversion, there was a real mission. I discovered I was a political being.”
He’d been put into the dipper, you could say. He stayed there from 1983 to 1989, on the back roads of Tennessee (he’d already moved to Knoxville), Kentucky, Missouri, the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. What he poured back out on the world is a collection of roughly ten thousand images, most of which have never been seen. It is a body of work that the photographer Barney Kulok, the founder of Hunters Point Press, counts “among the great bodies of work of twentieth-century American photography.”
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Lee’s mission-speak led me to wonder whether Evans had inspired him to do his own take on Famous Men.
“I didn’t go in with some simple pronouncement that I wanted to expose the injustice that Black Americans had to endure. It’s not some kind of dumbass, do-gooder kumbaya,” Lee says. “It’s not any of that shit. It’s just simply that what people are doing, what’s going on, is important.” He adds that it’s about being fair to people, which isn’t “any earthshaking thing.”
It’s no small thing, either. I do not take for granted that a photographer with Lee’s talents and moral clarity dedicated nearly a decade to this proposition. Without both, this work might not exist—and if it did exist, it would not hold such power. Lee’s images succumb to neither exploitation nor sentimentality, which is most evident in his photographs of children. Childhood is nothing if not an exercise in being looked down on by adults, yet the children here seem to recognize that the man who stands before them takes them seriously. That may be my highest praise: Baldwin Lee took people seriously.
How rare, how wonderful, that someone looked carefully enough to see these Black women and Black men and Black children not as symbols, not as props, but as stars.
“The world only becomes interesting if you get into the real specifics of it that make it individual and unique,” he says of his approach. Take another example, an image that Kulok calls one of Baldwin’s greatest. Here, in this untitled photograph from the mid-1980s, Lee has captured (in my mind) a beautiful young Black Jesus, standing tall and whole, playfully rejecting the cross and the lynching tree.
Lee listened from his garage in Knoxville as I rattled off my thoughts. I was reminded of the hecklers at the foot of Jesus’s cross yelling, “If you are the son of God, if you’re so big and bad, come down, save yourself.”
“Photography is not wordless literature,” Lee tells me. He considers it closer to sculpture, or improvisational theater. Between Lee and his subjects there is “an absolute imprecision of both of our abilities that sometimes results in something miraculous that is infinitely better than anything I had wanted. And that’s when the hair on the back of your neck stands up, and that’s when your pulse quickens, and that’s when you say, Oh, dear God, please don’t let me fuck this exposure up.” How rare, how wonderful, that someone looked carefully enough to see these Black women and Black men and Black children not as symbols, not as props, but as stars. “I saw myself as a talent agent,” he adds.
So, why did Lee stop photographing? He retired from the University of Tennessee, where he taught photography for more than thirty years, and doesn’t use a camera aside from the one on his iPhone. He speaks of his guilt, knowing that he had safe harbor when many of the people he photographed did not. He speaks of the work becoming predictable and repetitive. He compares it to the arc of an athletic career. “You think that the trajectory you’re on is going to go on forever. And it doesn’t. It’s finite. Because if it was to continue indefinitely, if it was always good, it would be no good. If all things are good, nothing is good.”
I think again of Little Richard. At the end of that 1973 clip, Little Richard laments that he was never allowed to speak to Jimi Hendrix before he died. “I had something to tell him,” Little Richard cries, pushing hair away from his forehead. “And I never did, so now I have to talk about it and let him know: it was good.” Baldwin Lee is still with us. His photographs are with us too. Let us now say: It was good, Baldwin Lee. It was good.
This article originally appeared in Aperture, issue 244, “Cosmologies,” under the title “Baldwin Lee: Southern Journeys.”Casey Gerald is the author of the memoir There Will Be No Miracles Here (2018).