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Baldwin Lee: ‘A Southern Portrait, 1983-1989’

  • Art, Photography
  • David Hill Gallery, Ladbroke Grove
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Baldwin Lee, untitled, circa 1983-89
Baldwin Lee, untitled, circa 1983-89

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Lee obsessively documented poor Black communities in the Deep South in the ’80s with extraordinary results

For seven years in the 1980s, Chinese-American New York photographer Baldwin Lee cut an eccentric figure around the Southern states of the USA. Lugging an ancient wooden large-format land camera (the kind with a black cloth that you disappear under), Lee would set up his awkward tripod and take pictures. Pictures of families, of kids playing in the stifling summer heat, of young men posing with their cars, of girls in their best dresses. Of clapped-out wrecks, sagging shacks and ominous intimations of poverty, slavery and racism.

The large format means that every detail is there to explore: a young man protectively puts a hand on a stack of four cassettes on the hood of a car; a kid provocatively presents a dollar bill to Lee’s lens, a battered Diana Ross gatefold LP teeters atop a totem pole of TVs and hi-fi, as a stern little girl stares us down. All the people are Black.

There’s an obsessive feeling to these photographs. Maybe because of Lee’s choice of antiquated equipment, they sometimes feel like they’re from a much earlier era, like the work of the Farm Security Administration in the Great Depression (Lee studied under FSA luminary Walker Evans). Lee deliberately used antique uncoated lenses for their ‘creamy’ quality – these are crisp images, but not hard-edged, and imbued with huge humanity. There’s no icky feeling of ethnographic study about it, though, despite the fact that life if you were poor and Black in the Deep South things clearly hadn’t improved much from the time when Lee’s camera was made.

There are dark undercurrents that hint at things off-camera

Perhaps because of his own ethnicity, perhaps because of operating in plain sight with his cumbersome set-up and not sneaking shots from the hip, Lee gets extraordinary trust and engagement from his subjects. But there are dark undercurrents that hint at things off-camera. Children press up against a ragged screen door, like rabbits at the pet store. A Black youth sweeps the pavement in front of a courthouse whose pediment boldly proclaims: ‘Obedience to the Law Is Liberty’. Most sinister of all is an apparently innocuous picture of some cars parked in a field. Lee knew, though, that clusters of well-maintained automobiles in remote rural spots meant one thing in the South: Klan.

This is Baldwin Lee’s masterwork. A fragment of it, anyway: his project eventually yielded 10,000 plates. Since the point at which he considered it ‘complete’, he has devoted himself to teaching. On the evidence of the accompanying book, this show could have been ten times the size with no dilution of quality. Some of these pictures have never even been printed before, which is basically unbelievable. This one modest room of photographs is – and no apologies for the cliché – staggering. You won’t see a better show of photography this year. Maybe ever.

Chris Waywell
Written by
Chris Waywell


David Hill Gallery
Ladbroke Grove
W10 6HA
Ladbroke Gove tube
Opening hours:
Mon-Sat, 10am-4.30pm

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