Baldwin Lee – Episode 72

In this episode of PhotoWork with Sasha Wolf, Sasha and photographer, Baldwin Lee discuss the first-ever publication of his work, eponymously titled, Baldwin Lee, published by Hunters Point Press. Baldwin and Sasha talk about his childhood years in Chinatown in New York City and then later studying with some of the most famous photographers of the times: Minor White and Walker Evans. They also have a provocative conversation about leaving photography behind once you believe you have completed your best work.

Baldwin Lee was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1951. In 1972 he received a BS from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied photography with Minor White, and in 1975 received an MFA from Yale University, where he studied with Walker Evans..

In 1982, he became an art professor at the University of Tennessee, where he founded the university’s photography program. He then decided to take a tour of the deep south, covering 2,000 miles over the course of ten days. During this trip, Lee widely photographed the people, landscapes, and cities of the south. After developing his photos, he realized that he had a particular passion for the African-American communities he had interacted with. He took numerous tours of the southern United States from 1983 to 1989, producing roughly 10,000 photographs. The majority of this work focused on the lives of low-income black Americans. When Lee arrived in a new town, he would visit the police station and let them know that he was planning to take photos with expensive photography equipment, so they could warn him about the poorer, redlined parts of town. Lee would then make a point of visiting these neighborhoods, since they had the highest concentration of black residents. In his work, Lee strived to represent his subjects as individuals with vibrant personalities, rather than reducing them to stereotypes or emphasizing their poverty. Lee retired from teaching in 2014, and is currently professor emeritus at University of Tennessee. He authored the monograph Baldwin Lee (2022), which was edited by Baeney Kulok and published by Hunter Point Press.

Lee has received recognition for his contributions to American photography. Imani Perry wrote that "Lee has a sensitive eye for both poverty and dignity", describing him as "a witness to those at the bottom of U.S. stratification, and their refusal to swallow that status". In a 2015 article in Time Magazine, photographer Mark Steinmetz wrote that Lee "produced a body of work that is among the most remarkable in American photography of the past half century". Lee received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1984, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1984 and 1987.

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