David Hill Gallery presents A Southern Portrait 1983-1989 dedicated to the work of photographer Baldwin Lee, opening in March 2023. An exceptional series of portraits capturing life in the Southern States of America during the 1980s, this is the first solo exhibition of Lee’s work outside of the United States with many of the photographs previously unseen.
In 1983, photographer Baldwin Lee left his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, and set off on a road trip through the American South. He did not know what his subject would be. “I had no agenda, no plan,” he told The New Yorker. “I photographed everything: landscapes, architecture, close-ups, still lifes, night pictures, people, old, young, white, black, poor, rich. I just wanted to see.” During the trip he found himself drawn to photographing Black Americans at home, at work and at play, in the street and amid nature. Over the next seven years, he made numerous road trips to the South to continue his work. He returned with images so poignant and piercing, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired his photographs.
The images by Lee, a first generation Chinese American now 71 years old, show an intimate portrayal of daily life in the American South that is considered among the most remarkable in the last half century. Most of the work has not been on public view before 2022. His compelling depictions of childhood pleasures, the working life of adults, the bonds among families and communities reveal the artist’s unique commitment to picturing life in America. Along the way, however, he became attuned to the colossal racial injustice still rampant in the American South and photographed Black Southerners living their everyday lives against the background of poverty.
Nearly 40 years after Lee’s initial 2,000-mile road trip, his work is finally being seen. First shown at Howard Greenberg in New York in September 2022, then Joseph Bellows in California a couple of months later and now at David Hill Gallery, London.
As Lee has written about his Southern experiences: “My profession was announced as I walked down the road by the tripod-mounted, large-format wooden camera perched on my left shoulder. I had long since discovered that walking is by far the most useful way to increase your chances of encountering interesting people and situations. I was making my way along a street in a dilapidated commercial area on the outskirts of downtown Augusta, Georgia, when a beater van slowed as it passed. A slowing vehicle usually means one of two things. Either it is a random innocent event, or you are being checked out, perhaps out of curiosity. It is not every day that people see an Asian man in the Black section of town carrying a big camera.” The couple inside the van invite Lee in: “A short time later we arrived at a funeral home. The man and his wife had lost their baby a few days before.” Baldwin was asked to take a photograph of the baby.
The curator Joshua Chuang noted, “The pictures stand apart, not because they are depictions of Black subjects by a first-generation Chinese American, but because they were made by a photographer of rare perception and instinct.”
‘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, demeanour, or anything else. If in a day I asked twenty people for permission to make photographs, nineteen would say yes.’ Baldwin Lee
Baldwin Lee : A Southern Portrait, 1983-89
March 10 – July 22, 2023
David Hill Gallery, London
345 Ladbroke Grove
London W10 6HA