Artist Baldwin Lee has a reputation for excellence. The slight-framed, bespectacled University of Tennessee art professor has been teaching photography in Knoxville for more than 25 years now, and I’ve yet to hear one unkind word about him. His colleagues at UT revere him, where he’s been honored with the university’s highest awards for teaching. He’s seen the school cycle through countless budget cuts and faculty changes, yet his classes are the most coveted semester after semester. He’s even tackled a mid-career technological advance that changed the face of photography—the advent of the digital camera.
His students ardently gush over him like a movie star, and some cite his classes as the reason they pursue art careers. They scurry to his office for advice on everything from grad school options to camera lenses, and he sends the cream of the crop on to schools like Yale and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He seldom attends art openings unless they’re his students’ shows, where you will spot him chatting up clueless parents and snapping pictures throughout the night.
So it seems only fitting that UT’s Downtown Gallery kicked off its fall season with Lee’s Photographs of New York, his first major Knoxville show since the Knoxville Museum of Art presented his Black Americans in the South series several years ago. The show is split between gorgeous black-and-white cityscapes of Manhattan taken before Sept. 11 and bold digital photo collages of Ground Zero and Hurricane Katrina memorial sites.
Lee is best known for his no-nonsense street photography-meets-photojournalism style, akin to that of Henri Cartier-Bresson and most notably Walker Evans, with whom he studied at Yale during the 1970s. His black-and-white portraits of black families and his playful studies of young beach revelers are seminal, timeless works that exude steely confidence and a knowing eye.
The Manhattan photos in Lee’s Photographs of New York don’t prominently feature New Yorkers in the frames; in fact, they barely have any people in them at all. Shot between 1973 and 1980, Lee intentionally took most of the photos at dawn to capture the luminous natural light, and the vacant New York streets and looming World Trade Center create a powerful palette for him.
Lee grew up on Mulberry Street in the heart of Chinatown, and the construction of the World Trade Center’s towers obviously had a profound effect on his neighborhood. Most of the works here feature the towers with great subtlety, either nestled behind other buildings or balancing out Lee’s frames with their jutting presence. He captures them from all over the great city, from Brooklyn parks and Manhattan sidewalks, even from his parents’ bedroom window. I wonder if any other photographer has ever captured these glass-and-steel towers so elegantly and lovingly.
Lee’s superb use of photography’s most essential elements, like line, repetition, and scale, are so refined that it seems as if he arranged the Manhattan skyline himself. Two large-scale photos, “Lower Manhattan Skyline” and “View Through 54th Street” are iconic shots of New York that succeed without being saturated by brazen sentimentality or glamour. They’re just brief moments of a city captured by a man with his camera.
Also present is Lee’s more recent Aftermath series, a sharp contrast to his other photographs. These color digital works are panoramic collages of 20 or so photos taken at memorial sites at Ground Zero in Manhattan and some at the spots most devastated by Katrina in Mississippi. Composed of two equal-sized planes, Lee amasses his photos of people, advertising images, graffiti, and debris to tell a story of tragedy and perseverance.
Where the black-and-white photos were visually ordered, these color prints take in all of the chaos and detritus associated with the tragedies they depict, yet remain remarkably focused. In “Aftermath 6,” onlookers gather around a memorial site with their cameras with varying degrees of shock and wonder. Still, the photos are contemplative and adroit, and clearly are the artist’s response to such monumental loss.