Baldwin Lee, Baldwin Lee

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Hunters Point Press (here). Hardback with cardstock cover and dust jacket, 10.8 x 11.4 inches, 168 pages, with 95 black-and-white photographs. Includes an interview with the artist by Jessica Bell Brown, and an essay by Casey Gerald. Design by Duncan Whyte. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Photo history is sometimes viewed as a sequential progression. Like sedimentary rock laid down over millennia, each layer provides the foundation for later movements to build upon in series. This might be accurate as a very rough model, but it doesn’t account for regular distortions in the strata. Igneous intrusions occasionally launch from the depths, with reverberating effects. The careening career arcs of Eugène Atget, Mike Disarmer, and Vivian Maier followed such a trajectory, among several others. All toiled for years in obscurity before bursting quickly into the photographic firmament.

The recent rise of Baldwin Lee has been just as volcanic. For three decades, his profile was more or less invisible. Never mind that he’d spent 7 years in his early thirties creating an astonishing archive, with some 10,000 negatives documenting Black Americans in the South. That was in the 1980s. He’d since stopped photographing altogether, comfortably ensconced in Knoxville where since 1982 he’d taught at the University of Tennessee. Recently retired, he took classes and taught himself car repair. Photography was on the back burner.

In 2019, his photos were included in a group show in New Orleans. They caught the attention of New York publisher Barney Kulok, who offered Lee a monograph through his imprint Hunters Point Press. Lee agreed, but that was the about extent of his involvement. He chose 20 photos which he wanted included. The rest —design, curation, sequence, texts— would be up to the publisher. The arrangement was simple but the logistics took some time. Finally in September of this year, Hunters Point Press published Baldwin Lee’s eponymous debut.

Baldwin Lee was worth the wait. It’s an immaculate hardcover with gorgeous tritones and expansive texts. Star treatment, in other words, and it’s had stratospheric impact. Within a few weeks, Lee has become a cause célèbre, profiled everywhere from Artforum to The Atlantic to Daily Beast to the Wall Street Journal, not to mention the usual photography platforms. The Baldwin Lee monograph was nominated for the 2022 Aperture-Paris Photo Book Award and the first edition of 750 is now sold out. But don’t fret if you missed out. A second printing is in the works.

For those in New York, thirty silver gelatin prints can be seen at through November 12th at Howard Greenberg Gallery (link here), which describes the show as “an intimate portrayal of daily life in the American South that is considered to be among the most remarkable in the last half century.” A followup exhibition has just opened at Joseph Bellows Gallery, which hosted an online show of Lee’s in the early months of the pandemic. This version will be in physical form and with considerably more fanfare.

Baldwin Lee’s star is clearly on the rise. But let’s back up to the beginning. How did we arrive at this point? Fortunately, the monograph and shows provide plenty of supplementary information. In a wonderful interview conducted by Jessica Bell Brown, Lee recalls his early years. Like so many American success stories, he came from immigrant roots. His parents—his father a keen amateur photographer and American war vet—resettled from China to New York City (in an apartment photographed by Jacob Riis!) after WWII with ambitious prospects for their five kids.

Born in 1951, Lee was plunged into a career track almost immediately. “Creativity was never brought up in my childhood,” he remembers. “The only emphasis was success in school.” He was valedictorian in high school and then enrolled at MIT. Perhaps he would become an engineer or doctor? All proceeded according to plan until he encountered a charismatic barefoot guru by the name of Minor White, at which point the college path went quickly sideways. Photography gradually consumed Lee, and when it came time for grad school in 1974, he jumped in with both feet, matriculating at Yale under the tutelage of Walker Evans—“as a teacher, indifferent at best,” by Lee’s reckoning—whom he later came to print for.

Not only did Lee have the good fortune to study under two 20th century titans, they represented nearly polar extremes in philosophy and visual style, providing the aspiring acolyte a broad spectrum of influence. In John Szarkowski’s terms, Minor White exemplified the “mirror” based outlook concerned with self-expression, Evans the “windows” style using photography to examine the outer world. Although Lee’s style eventually settled closer to Evans, he came to incorporate elements of both mentors. In his photos and later comments, the homage is overt. Pictures by White and Evans illustrate the Brown interview, interspersed with juicy anecdotes.

After receiving his MFA and nailing down the Tennessee professorship, Lee set to work. He began making forays into southern communities within a few day’s drive of Knoxville, carting along his 4 x 5 view camera and tripod. For extra inspiration he packed along books by Walker Evans and August Sander. He wasn’t sure at that point what he would find, or even what to look for. But his engine ran hot with inner drive. As Lee recounted to Brown, “I was in my thirties. I was powerful and unstoppable. I was right and righteous. I felt that I could conquer anything. It was intoxicating.” A color Polaroid toward the end of the book shows him captured by Walker Evans, burning with fearless intensity. Watch out world.

Lee shot 300 photos on his first trip in 1983, capturing a scattershot variety of mostly inanimate material. “The bane and blessing of being a photographer,” he writes, “is that you can aim the camera at anything.” And that’s what he did, shooting architecture, streets, and social landscapes, as well as people. It was only later, sorting through the negatives at home that his raison d’etre clarified. He recalls the moment of awakening in an essay accompanying the current show at Howard Greenberg Gallery: “Upon completion of the trip I had a revelation: in my pictures of Black southerners, the camera aligned my own conviction of what matters with the life and lives of those who matter.”

With missionary zeal Lee converted to portraiture. “My work was transformed,” he writes. “The act of asking for permission, of confronting this angst, transfigured the relation between photographer and subject.” His modus operandi was to arrive in a new place, ask police which neighborhoods to avoid, then head directly to those places. They were always the Black areas. He may have been an interloper but he felt right at home. “Nothing was off limits,” he remembers. “Night or day, I would go anywhere. I was fearless.”

Why the focus on Black Americans? Surely some of the attraction was its exoticism, fed by his observer’s role as an outsider. He’d been culturally isolated as a youth, immersed in New York’s Chinatown with little exposure to the greater art world, nor deeper American currents of generational inequalities and racial strife. Not until college did aristocratic qualms begin to nag. “The crucial component of my tertiary education,” he writes in the Greenberg essay, “was my introduction to those who, because of race and class, were privileged…This new world showed me the arbitrariness of privilege…It recast how I understood my youth in Chinatown and oriented me toward justice in an unequal world.”

Dropped into the south like a frog into boiling water, his photographic eye was keyed for racial disparity. Southern towns in the eighties supplied it. One can only guess his initial shock visiting small communities, and realizing that they divided into Black and White halves, separated by race, income, and living status as cleanly as a Minor White composition. Revisiting some of the places Evans had photographed a half century earlier, it seemed that nothing had changed. “How is this possible?” he wondered. He’d stumbled upon “a stunning revelation about America.”

Lee found potential portrait subjects in passing, on street corners and/or private spaces, but that was only the starting point. As described in several revealing comments to Brown, Lee’s photographs often involved interaction and arrangement. He would often tell people where to stand, where to put their arms, where to look. He wanted to capture some spark of his initial impression, but reforming the exact permutation was impossible. In the best case scenarios, the resulting photos caught chance bits which were better than he could’ve hoped or planned. Sometimes “this gift is presented to you and you’re just lucky,” he remembers. He accepted them with grace and appreciation, just as he accepted more controlled photos. But it was the chance gems which drove him. “Hope springs eternal,” he remembers, “and when it happens…that’s the drug, that’s the high.”

An untitled photograph of a young man standing near a tree gets a detailed description in the book. Lee was initially drawn to the scene by two cars in the background. He made introductions, got the person in position, and framed the camera. It was only toward the end of the process that the man reached up into some off camera ropes. “I thought, ‘Oh my god!’ so I said, ‘Wait a minute!’…It was just by dumb luck that the top edge of the photograph was exactly where it should be,” Lee remembers.

If he was open to chance elements, it might be because his process was methodical. In the Brown interview, Lee compares it to sculpture, hewing closer to orderly sequence than found encounter. The book’s cover photograph, for example, has a refined precision which belies its relaxed mood. Three figures are laid like pearls across the frame, the central boy’s shirt pattern aligned perfectly with the old sedan trunk nearby. Clearly there is some choreography at work, but who knows what type, or how long it took Lee to settle on this particular permutation, or how many misexposures? The book includes almost ninety similar examples, each requiring some degree of personal engagement, and just a small slice of the 10,000 exposures he made in seven years of intense shooting. He wore out three cars, covering about 2,000 per outing.

Browsing through the stellar examples included, one can almost sense the ghosts of Minor White and Walker Evans, one perched on each shoulder of Lee. How much to interfere with the scene? How much to let it be and capture as found? He describes to Brown several photographs in depth, recounting the creative process in detail. These nuts-and-bolts revelations are a real treat for photographers, especially portraitists, and one of several components which make Baldwin Lee a special book. A photograph like “DeFuniak Springs, Florida, 1984”, for example, seems so casually choreographed it might have fallen from the sky. Reading Lee’s accounting we realize it was quite human dependent, orchestrated to perfection by Lee, then spiced with chance. Very few photographers have wrangled together straight scenes, choreography, and chance so successfully. It’s this magic stew which activates Lee’s work, and sets it apart from most contemporaries. 

Lee’s photographs are so compositionally tight and enjoyable that it’s easy to overlook their subtext, a world of engrained poverty, segregation, and disinvestment. A brick cab garage seems on the verge of collapse. Several photos capture kids playing near worn wood siding. Cattle gather precariously near an open pit, while in another frame kudzu threatens to swamp every edifice. Even the charge of an electrical storm can’t inject life into the region’s sleepy corpus. “It’s not about the difference between rich and poor,” Lee writes, “It’s really about the similarity, that for whatever reason we all want to surround ourselves with something whose symbolic significance allows us to feel that it is home.”

Even if not intended as polemic, Lee’s photos seem to have a social justice component. “Lee came to the South,” writes Casey Gerald, “in part to reject his training, to reject a way of life and artistry he found elitist, that sparked in him a righteous indignation.” His consciousness had been awakened, and it’s no great leap to see Lee as a social crusader in the tradition of, say, Gene Smith or Sebastião Salgado. But Lee dissembles. “It’s not some kind of dumbass, do-gooder kumbaya,” he tells Gerald. I’ll take him at his word. But it’s hard not to think of his photographs moored to deeper tensions.

The unusual coda to Lee’s story is that, after creating the work in this belated monograph, he gave up photography. “I was psychologically and emotionally exhausted,” he says. Lee isolates the stopping point around a single photo op during which he realized regretfully that his urge to objectify was at odds with his humanity. But even before that point the end seems inevitable . There was no way he could keep up the intensity of his thirties. Talking with Brown, Lee compares artistic creativity to the limited timespan of a professional athlete. All sports careers end before middle age. Why should photographers be any different? His process required constant engagement with the world. It needed energy and boldness he no longer had.

“I’m older and wiser now,” he writes from the comfort of his golden years, “but older and wiser means that I’m now a coward and I overly value physical possessions and past accomplishments. I have become someone whom I would’ve hated forty years ago.” Ouch. Lee’s photographs penetrate to the core, so it’s no surprise his self-examination skills are just as sharp. Still, any middle aged artists reading his declaration will feel the knife twist.

Even while active, Lee did not seek publicity or attention for his work, and quitting photography did not burnish his profile. In some ways it’s a miracle that the art world found him on its own. Thankfully igneous intrusions occasionally occur on their own and, against all odds, Baldwin Lee has found establishment footing with his monograph, which is one of the year’s best. He seems more bemused than excited by the recent hype, and openly skeptical of artistic ambition. “You don’t achieve anything without clawing over someone else’s back,” he told Magic Hour podcast recently. He then described the alien experience of viewing his own prints at Howard Greenberg Gallery. “Those photos look pretty good. How did I do those?” 

Collector’s POV: A gallery show of this body of work is on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York from September 14 to November 22, 2022 (here). It includes 24 black-and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against light grey walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1983 and 1989. The vintage prints are sized roughly 15×19 inches (or the reverse), and two larger modern prints are shown at 32×40 inches, in editions of 6+2APs. The vintage prints are priced at $6800 each. (Installation shots above.) Lee’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

A follow up show will be on view at Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla from October 22 to December 10, 2022 (here).

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2 comments

  1. David Mahoney /

    For historical accuracy it is important to point out that Joseph Bellows Gallery exhibited Baldwin’s work back in the Spring of 2020 after Joe discovered a print of the work in an obscure auction and tracked him down. So that was the predecessor exhibition to the current New York show.

  2. Blake Andrews /

    Thanks for the note, David. The review does include a short reference to the 2020 Bellows show. I’d also heard through Bill Shapiro about the obscure auction but couldn’t find much info on it. Do you know any details? Was it the same New Orleans auction which caught Kulok’s notice? Thx, -B

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