Robert C. May Photography Lecture Series: Baldwin Lee

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Between 1983 and 1989, Baldwin Lee traveled through the South, photographing in predominantly Black and generally poor neighborhoods. When he entered a town, he would ask police which areas to avoid, and then head there. He worked with a bulky camera on a tripod that made his purpose obvious and asked permission to make images—10,000 in six years. Almost forty years after he began the series, his work has been newly assessed and published in a monograph that has critics calling him one of the great undiscovered photographers of the era. 

Lee had an awareness of what it was like to exist in two worlds. As a first-generation Chinese American, he was a disparaged minority in mainstream America. But as a brilliant student, he had the opportunity and support to study with two photography giants at prestigious institutions—Minor White at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Walker Evans at Yale. His move to Knoxville in 1982 to establish a photography program at the University of Tennessee was also a choice to leave the Northeast. Lee did not set out to make a series about race when he began traveling the region, but he deliberately stepped beyond his lived experience by taking trips to make images in Alabama, Arkansas, the Carolinas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. 

“The kind of photography that I was most interested in was the kind that involved going outside, involved psychically and mentally and emotionally stepping into an unknown world, an unknown situation,” he said. “It wasn’t just for entertainment, amusement, or diversion, there was a real mission. I discovered I was a political being.”  

Lee still lives in Knoxville. The first edition of his book, Baldwin Lee (2022, Hunters Point Press), features eighty-eight photographs; it has sold out and is being reissued. Small selections of this work have been shown in numerous museums over the years—including at the UK Art Museum, which owns ten works—and Lee just had his first solo exhibition of the series at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York. 

No registration is required to attend the lecture in-person, but for those who are not available to attend in-person, this lecture will also be livestreamed over Zoom. Follow this link to register for the livestream.



Created 01/11/2023
Last Updated 03/21/2023