“I would approach my potential subjects, explain in as detailed a manner as possible what I had seen, and ask for permission to take a photograph. Of course, small talk — where was I from, who would see the photograph, why I selected them — would sometimes ensue. Often permission was granted with no discussion at all. Looking is a two-way street. Not only is the photographer looking, but the potential subject is looking too. What the subject sees carries great weight. For some reason, people would see me positively. I am not sure if it was my race, gender, physicality, dress, demeanor, or anything else. If in a day I asked twenty people for permission to make photographs, nineteen would say yes.”
Baldwin Lee, A Southern Portrait, 1983-89 is already getting rave reviews and it has only been open for a few days. His first show outside the United States, the images are a seven-year study of life in the American South taken by a first generation Chinese American. A former student of Walker Evans and Minor White, he taught at Yale and the Massachusetts College of Art, and inaugurated the photography programme at the University of Tennessee. On his first road trip to discover he wasn’t sure what, Lee found himself in the local sheriff’s offices asking which areas he should avoid. On receiving their advice, he would then go directly to those areas to see what he would find. With his bulky large format camera and tripod and Asian appearance, he was as intriguing to the locals as they were to him. Gaining their trust and curiosity, he would get permission to photograph them in their communities and everyday life.
The photos were taken in the 80s but some look like they could be from 20 years earlier, save for a few clues. Look closely (as you will, each frame contains a picture – or several – within a picture) and you’ll notice 80s style cues – sunglasses, cassettes – as well as more obvious cues like cars and bikes. The detail is incredible; there’s no point trying to view these on a phone screen. Also remarkable, after a few notable flurries of interest, Lee retired from photography considering his best work done. (There’s a great discussion about this here.)
It was only last year that his work was rediscovered and shown in New York, followed by a monograph and renewed media interest. The work in this latest show at David Hill Gallery features many previously unseen images. Read more here and visit David Hill Gallery at 345 Ladbroke Grove, W10 (until 22nd July).
WORDS: Disneyrollergirl / Navaz Batliwalla
IMAGES: Baldwin Lee / David Hill Gallery
NOTE: Most images are digitally enhanced. Some posts use affiliate links and PR samples. Please read my privacy and cookies policy here
CLICK HERE to get Disneyrollergirl blog posts straight to your inbox once a week
CLICK HERE to buy my book, The New Garconne: How to be a Modern Gentlewoman
CLICK HERE to buy my beauty book, Face Values: The New Beauty Rituals and Skincare