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What We're Reading: Tributes to Photographer Corky Lee

By David Schonauer   Tuesday February 23, 2021


We recently noted the passing of Corky Lee.

In the days since, a number of publications have published tributes to the photographer, who died on January 27 in Queens, New York, at the age of 73. The cause was covid-19.

“Lee often described his life’s work as ‘photographing Asian Pacific Americans.’ It was a simple passion that could take him anywhere,” noted The New Yorker. “For nearly 50 years, New Yorkers never knew where they might run into Lee and his camera: a museum gala or a tenants’ rights meeting, construction sites or local laundries, youth basketball games or poetry readings, community fairs, concerts, or protests. Most often, it was somewhere along Mott Street, in the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown, where his photographs of everyday life helped generations of Chinese-Americans see themselves as part of a larger community.”

“[T]he self-proclaimed ‘ABC from NYC’ (ABC stands for American-born Chinese) spoke of his camera as a sword that he used to pursue ‘photographic justice’ by documenting the overlooked role that Asian Americans played across the U.S., praised the Vulture blog. “His pictures — joyous, banal, specific, upsetting, uplifting — were close studies and celebrations of the complexities of community.”

Born Young Kwok Lee in New York City to Chinese immigrant parents, he was the first child in his family to go to college, graduating from City University of New York’s Queens College, noted Time magazine.

Lee, who joked that he was the “undisputed unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate,” embarked on his quest while studying American history at Queens College in 1965, noted Reuters.

“Lee was puzzled by an official photo of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, which was completed in 1868 largely with Chinese workers but showed none of them,” reported the news service. At the 145th anniversary celebration of the event, Lee gathered a flash mob of about 250 Chinese Americans with many posing in period costume for his photo.

“Like many activists, Lee believed that imagining the future of their community required looking after those who came before,” added The New Yorker. “He worked as a community organizer in Chinatown, connecting elders to social services, making sure new immigrants understood their rights. He began taking photographs at rallies and demonstrations using a borrowed camera. (He couldn’t afford his own because he spent all his money on dates.)”

Chinatown in the seventies was undergoing significant shifts that were often imperceptible to those outside of it, as  the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 created new flows of Asian immigrants, noted The New Yorker. Many of the new immigrants didn’t always share immediate affinities with those who were already here. “But Lee’s photography, which he viewed as an extension of his activism, helped Asian-Americans recognize their shared yearnings and struggles,” writes Hua Hsu.

“For Lee, showing up to any event went hand in hand with documenting it,” noted Vulture. “His pictures are formally and narratively striking, tracing a whole tapestry of relations woven of smaller details.”

Herb Tam, a curator at the Museum of the Chinese in America told Gothamist that Lee “saw his photography as having ‘an active role in the making of history and giving voice to people who were invisible.’”

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