One of the first photographs I fell in love with was Robert Frank’s Fourth of July, Coney Island (1958). Night has fallen on Coney Island. The sky, which stretches across the top third of Frank’s photograph, looks to be painted solid black. In the foreground, far from the crowds in the distance, lies a beautiful young Black man, his back to debris left in the sand. He lies alone, asleep, curled up in a fetal position, prayer hands tucked between his knees. He’s barefoot, in long pants and long sleeves.
Something, I now realize, was missing from Frank’s photograph, though perhaps it could be said that something was faulty, confused, in me. I can no longer feel the same romance I felt for that boy lying alone on Coney Island. Or rather, what I thought was romance had in fact been heartbreak. I wanted so desperately, years ago, to have enough cash to purchase a print of Frank’s Coney Island photograph. Now I know that I wanted less the photograph and more the boy, that I imagined that my acquisition might somehow bring him in from the cold.
Of course, it could not. A photograph may change little, if anything, but it does remind, does raise its hand among the wasteland of forgetfulness, erasure, and say, I was there. Let me tell you what I saw. Yet so many photographs of Black life—especially by outside chroniclers—seem to have seen so little, missed so much, forgotten that we are not just lonesome, pitiful vagabonds on the white American beach. That’s why I was moved, even surprised, by the work of Baldwin Lee.
Born in Brooklyn in 1951, Lee grew up in Chinatown, a world that, he says, “didn’t extend too far away from my skin.” After college at MIT and an M.F.A. at Yale, he was eager to break out of the stale, elitist milieu. He moved to Knoxville, where he taught photography at the University of Tennessee. Then, in 1983, he hit the road. Way down in the muck of the American South, Lee led his Dodge Dart Sport out of Knoxville, across to Memphis, down the Mississippi River through the Delta toward New Orleans; he then headed east along the Gulf Coast through Alabama; to Tallahassee, Florida; then north through Macon and Atlanta, Georgia; and back home. Along the way, he stopped and walked the streets, taking the first of 10,000 photographs that are just now starting to be published and critically engaged with, more than 30 years later. His first monograph came out yesterday, and his first solo exhibition will open in New York this month. Such attention is disorienting for the somewhat reclusive Lee, though not nearly as earthshaking as his first journey through the South. When I spoke with Lee last spring, he described that experience as akin to “being out swimming, and then all of a sudden you’re caught in a vortex.”
He’d been swimming up ’til then in what seemed to be the best photographic waters, trained by the giants Minor White and Walker Evans. He’d slept in an unmade bed last occupied by Lee Friedlander. He had mastered photographic printing, studied the history and technical aspects of the craft. And yet he had produced, up to that point, photographs that Irving Penn pronounced “dead” at Lee’s final M.F.A. critique. Dead perhaps because Lee had not found his subject—or because his only subject had been photography itself. That all changed down South, where the Black Americans he met radicalized him. “I discovered that I was a political being,” he said. He grasped, thanks in part to his own upbringing as the son of Chinese immigrants, the oppressive systems and subtle conditioning that shaped the lives of those he met. He saw his camera less as a propaganda machine and more as a tool to testify that these lives, mundane and epic and “graceful,” mattered.