"Looking Is Harder Than It Looks"
The South in Black and White: Photographs by Baldwin Lee
Picture this: An Asian-American man from New York city is walking through African-American communities in the deep South. He's carrying an antique-looking wooden camera and a tripod and asking people if he can take their pictures. Most times they feel comfortable enough to say yes, because as Baldwin Lee notes in his memoir, he's a minority within a minority.
"I routinely seek out the local police station when I arrive in a new place. I announce that I am a tourist interested in taking photographs and have very expensive camera equipment. The officers will usually produce a map and redline areas to be avoided, almost always neighborhoods where there is a concentration of blacks. The redlined areas are where I go to make photographs."
Contemplate this: Lee considers Walker Evans the greatest American documentary photographer in history, and is fortunate to have studied under him while in college. In large part, Lee is literally traveling in Evans' footsteps. Evans took landmark portraits of people struggling through the Great Depression, and those pictures remain riveting and vibrant to this day.
"Looking is harder than it looks because looking is not innocent. Eye contact may cause a feeling of awkwardness, staring can be offensive, and the taking of a picture is potentially abusive. Eye contact is fleeting, staring is short-lived, but a photograph's unblinking gaze lasts forever. A photograph preserves a moment. But this is not always the same as what the memory preserves. The record made by the camera is as unprejudiced as it is precise."
Appreciate this: Chrysler Museum Director William Hennessey is personally curating this exhibition and is a big admirer of Lee's work.
"Lee creates works of great formal beauty and subtlety that reveal a deep feeling for his subjects and their life stories. Lee has a remarkable ability to discover in unlikely places people of great presence and spirit."
Exhibition dates: Feb. 8 - Aug. 26, 2012.