A More Complete Archive of the American South

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.

[Read: The life of a little Black boy in America]

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.

Diptych: boys looking out through a screen door; white clothes hanging on a line
Left: Rosedale, Mississippi (1984). Right: Helena, Arkansas (1986). (Copyright Baldwin Lee. Courtesy of Hunters Point Press.)

The black-and-white images Lee made during that time, shot with a labor-intensive large-format camera, stand out not only because of their technical virtuosity. Their power, I’d argue, derives from Lee’s moral clarity. His subjects were not just symbols or props there for the taking as he zoomed through town; they became collaborators—“stars,” in Lee’s words.

Lee is no Evans, whose legendary Depression-era photographs document sharecroppers in the South. For that, we should be glad. Although Lee learned a great deal from his teacher, he also felt that “the assumption that Evans sympathized with the sharecroppers he photographed in Alabama should not be unchallenged.” Lee, like any great pupil, partly came to the South to reject his training, to reject a way of life and artistry he found tragically myopic, that sparked in him a righteous indignation. That is not to say he had a social mission. “I didn’t go in with some simple pronouncement that I wanted to expose the injustice that Black Americans had to endure,” Lee told me. “It’s not some kind of dumbass, do-gooder kumbaya.” Nor do his photographs reflect a photographer who wandered the streets of the South as Jack Kerouac wandered the streets of Denver, “wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.” No, Lee’s photographs are the startling products of a man who knew he didn’t know a goddamn thing—and chose to change that.

Lee’s camera, which was large enough to garner immediate attention wherever he passed through, forced him to engage, intimately, with the folks he hoped to photograph. That sort of contact is rare in America, so rare that our distance from one another, physical and psychic, has us every year, it seems, closer to civil war—or at least an internal cold war. Lee’s body of work is a testament to a teaching by the civil-rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, who has done lifesaving work to free wrongly convicted prisoners from death row and led the effort to build a national memorial to the victims of lynching. All of his Herculean efforts are grounded in a simple mantra: “There’s power in proximity.” Lee’s work is in step with Stevenson’s efforts to get closer to the disenfranchised and to commemorate history that has long been ignored, if not erased.

a man on a porch in a white shirt holding a fan
Valdosta, Georgia (1984) (Copyright Baldwin Lee. Courtesy of Hunters Point Press.)

Look at Lee’s image of a man seated on his porch, dignified, holding a church fan with Mahalia Jackson’s calm, angelic face printed on its front. According to Lee, the man’s name is James White, of Valdosta, Georgia. Lee had seen White digging through a Dumpster earlier; he saw him again out on his front porch, seated in a metal chair. After some small talk, Lee asked to make a photograph; a few shots later, White invited Lee inside his home. He handed Lee a bundle of envelopes—letters from the Army, the Social Security Administration, and private insurance companies concerning the death of White’s son, who’d served in the military. Lee reviewed the papers and informed White that he was owed a good deal of money. White told Lee that he didn’t have a bank account. So Lee and White went to the bank, where Lee says White signed his application with an X. Then Lee went to the Social Security Administration himself back in Knoxville to ensure that White received his money, which he did. Lee remembers, “On my next trip to Valdosta, I drove straight to his house. The glow of being a do-gooder was immediately extinguished. I was startled to find Mr. White on his porch, sitting shirtless and unconscious, his stomach and lap covered with vomit. Next to him was an empty 1.75-liter bottle of cheap gin. As I stood there, a man came up and asked if I was the person responsible for getting Mr. White his money.

“‘What’s it to you?’ I said curtly.

“‘He’s going to drink himself to death on that money,’ the man said, ‘and it’ll be because of what you did.’”

Sometimes, a picture captures a thousand losses. There was more to White than this photograph, strong as it is. Lee made those 10,000 images because he knew the limits of a single frame. He knew that even 10,000 could not tell it all.

This, I believe, is the promise of archival recovery: We can get a fuller glimpse of lives like White’s, which are so often flattened into stock figures, if not outright farces. We can start to understand their complexity.

This, too, is the promise of rediscovering Baldwin Lee’s work.

a couple kissing in a door frame with a cowboy hat and hard hat hanging on the wall
Untitled (1983–1989) (Copyright Baldwin Lee. Courtesy of Hunters Point Press.)

Our historical record would be the poorer if it didn’t include Lee’s image of a group of children pressed against a screen door. Even as he portrays them, he accepts the privacy of that heavy screen. Who knows what’s in that house, who else is in that house, who these children are to one another? All I know is that I’m grateful that the man behind the camera pushed past sentimentality and exploitation, refused any temptation to make a “Photograph About Poor Black Children,” and simply stood in the right place, close, and tried to see these children in their raw, strange magic, in their beautiful particularity.

Of all the photographs Lee took from 1983 to 1989, one without a human subject stands out as a perfect theme image: a dead armadillo in Waterproof, Louisiana, who seems to have been lightning-struck. My gaze moves from the deep-fried armadillo, down the long dark road, out and out to fixate on the electric bolt that has stretched down and planted itself in the Earth. I ask, How far? How far from here to Armageddon? The viewer stands with death, gazing at destruction. Is that vantage point not also the truth for Black Americans in this country? Has it not been our story for more than 400 years? Baldwin Lee’s photographs say, Yes—but there’s more. Death and destruction may litter the landscape, but Lee’s image collaborators remind us that there is beauty alongside the ashes. There is, despite the odds, insistent life.

This article was adapted from the monograph Baldwin Lee.

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