Baldwin Lee

Beginning and ending a prodigious career in photography

Baldwin Lee, Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1983, gelatin silver print, 15 x 18 7/8".

Working as Walker Evans’s darkroom assistant while at Yale’s MFA program, Baldwin Lee handled and printed negatives from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Although the families photographed in Alabama’s Hale County in the 1930s never received a copy of that book, Lee would be sure to mail prints to those who posed for his own 4-by-5-inch view camera. Raised in New York as a child of Chinese immigrants, Lee embarked on extensive drives from 1983 to 1990 to photograph his new home of Tennessee, unexpectedly gravitating toward the lives of Black Americans in the post–Jim Crow South. With a new monograph out from Hunters Point Press as well as exhibitions at New York’s Howard Greenberg Gallery (through November 12) and California’s Joseph Bellows Gallery (opening October 22), Lee talks about his American odyssey and why he quit photography for good.

I MET SO MANY PEOPLE. When I went off on a new trip, I would spend time revisiting the previous places because I would run into people I had photographed. It was not uncommon for somebody to walk up to me and say, “Hey, you took this picture of me. It’s terrible!” And rip up the photo right in front of me. Art criticism is really rough on the street.

In Plain Dealing, Louisiana, I photographed a mother with her naked, sleeping baby on her lap, and the baby was melting in the 100-degree heat. It was a fantastic configuration of life—the voluptuousness of baby fat and the boniness of the mother’s knee. The baby grew up seeing this picture in her house. She eventually became a nurse and moved to Houston, where she volunteered in a community gallery and saw my photo of her. She sent me an email saying, “Mr. Lee, I hope you’re still alive.” It was great! She explained to me how much she loved that picture and I was so touched, I sent her a dozen roses.

I liken my selection of people to photograph to what a talent scout does. I see something that I intuitively recognize as extraordinary. My best pictures are the ones where they do something better than my directions. Before I release my camera shutter, the positioning of the body and the tilt of the head have to allow the star quality to emerge unfiltered. This was what happened when I photographed this young child Alan in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on my first trip. When I took that picture, I had never been more excited.

Baldwin Lee, Plain Dealing, Louisiana, 1984, gelatin silver print, 15 x 18 7/8".

If he had been born into different circumstances, Alan would be an enormous presence in the world. I would always tell my son, who liked baseball growing up, that the greatest baseball player never played ball. He had to support his family, or he couldn’t afford a ball. There were others who were far greater, but they never got a chance. Poverty is not just a lack of resources. Poverty is cultural, historical, and intractable.

There’s a power imbalance inherent in photography that’s difficult to reconcile, and some experiences foreshadowed the ending of the series. Once, after driving from Knoxville into Georgia, I saw a man mowing his lawn and he had one arm amputated. My photographer radar went off and I’m thinking, “I’m going to make a great picture!” When I saw myself reacting like this, I was appalled. I had become a monster. I never got out of my car, never took my camera out, and turned around and drove six hours back home.

But the real clincher was in Augusta, Georgia. I was walking down this dilapidated street with my camera when a couple drove by and asked if I’d go with them to take a picture of their baby, who just died a few days ago. We arrived at a funeral home a few minutes away and they led me to their baby, who’s dressed in a white christening gown in an open casket. After I took a few pictures for them, the couple invited me to their home where we sat and talked over iced tea. The father saw me looking into the next room and he went, “You see that bed? That’s ours, and it’s where the baby died. We don’t have a crib and the baby was tossing and turning, rolled off the edge of the mattress, and got caught in the sheets and suffocated.”

My wife and I just had our first child, a son, and my mother was so excited, she offered to purchase nursery furniture for us. Meanwhile, I was looking up antique baby cribs and OSHA standards. The gap of realities was just too extreme. This is what I faced with every photograph. A little bit of it stays with you and it accumulates. After seven years, it grew so onerous that I couldn’t do it anymore. I just quit.

I’m not interested in a second act. I know I’ve done my best work. I think so many artists are exploiting their previous successes because of demands placed on them by the market, the establishment, and their own vanity. I’ve led my life in such a way that I can feel that I’ve walked away with no regret—no melancholy. I had fulfilled everything I had ever wanted. There was nothing else left.