Remembering Corky Lee, The NYC Photographer Who Made Sure Asian Americans Were Never Forgotten


The primary time An Rong Xu thought he had met Corky Lee was in 2008. Xu was a primary 12 months images scholar on the College of Visible Arts who was searching for a compelling venture about Asian People. He went to the Asian American Arts Centre in Chinatown, the place the director Bob Lee informed him merely, “You gotta discover Corky Lee.”

Lee, who died at 73 final week from coronavirus, had by then change into the documentarian photographer of Asian People in New York Metropolis, taking pictures the group in its varied moments of repose, work, and unrest: a taxi driver on the wheel balancing a cup of espresso; a baby staring absentmindedly in opposition to the fluorescent backdrop of a worn manufacturing unit; younger male protesters linked arm-in-arm in unity. Then there have been the numerous group occasions, poetry readings, and small museum galas that Lee shot as a result of no person else cared sufficient to.

Xu noticed this dedication close-up when he received to shadow Lee as he photographed on weekends. “He was the truest type of a documentarian,” he lately mirrored. “He was there to take an image and ensure nobody forgets.”

“Corky’s work was proof that we can’t be erased,” he added.

From the beginning, Lee had informed Xu that he appeared acquainted to him. Then, at some point, he produced a photograph of a rally on Baxter Avenue urging the town to let an previous police station be used as a senior heart. “Is that this you?” he requested, pointing at a seven-year-old, certainly one of a number of elementary college kids on the protest.

The younger photographer was floored. “Holy shit, that is me,” he mentioned, realizing he had truly encountered Corky over a decade in the past.

Over the course of his decades-long profession, Lee had a knack for triggering such emotions of astonished appreciation, for his encyclopedic information of Chinese language American historical past, his greater than four-decade lengthy profession eked out as a freelancer, and his seemingly innate skill to acknowledge what many others didn’t. Born in Queens to working-class Chinese language immigrants, he was a self-taught photographer who labored by day at a printing press in Williamsburg. In his off-hours, he turned essentially the most prolific chronicler of Asian American historical past in New York Metropolis, propelled by a way of racial and ethical outrage.

He noticed his images as having “an lively position within the making of historical past and giving voice to individuals who had been invisible,” mentioned Herb Tam, a curator on the Museum of the Chinese language in America.

Lee noticed an inside battle too, as Asian People had been making an attempt to know their immigrant and hyphenated identities and the way it may translate into political energy. “He noticed all this as associated to historic lineage, a part of a continuum beginning within the ’60s,” Tam mentioned.

Ryan Lee Wong, an artwork critic and curator, mentioned that what set Lee other than different photographers was that he was embedded in activist circles.

“He at all times knew the place to go,” Wong mentioned. And he did not draw back from exhibiting intense confrontations — Lee’s 1975 picture of a bloodied Asian man named Peter Yew being escorted by police ran on the entrance web page of The New York Submit.

His protest photographs, Wong mentioned, “reduce immediately in opposition to the stereotype that Asian American are apolitical, that Asian People don’t march.”

Corky Lee


Corky Lee

Shirley Ng

In what’s also known as his most monumental venture, Lee in 2014 organized a gaggle of Asian People, together with direct descendants of the Chinese language railroad employees, to recreate a 1869 photograph that confirmed the completion of the railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah. Lee was in junior highschool when he first carefully inspected the unique photograph solely to seek out that it featured no Chinese language folks, the very group whose blood and sweat had constructed the nation’s railroad. Correcting injustices in opposition to Asian People turned his lifelong obsession.

In a extra private instance, Samantha Cheng, a broadcast journalist who was certainly one of his closest associates, mentioned that Lee made some extent of conserving his financial savings in an account at Abacus, a Chinese language-family-owned financial institution primarily based in Chinatown that was prosecuted and later vindicated of mortgage fraud and different crimes. For a lot of, each in and outdoors the group, the Manhattan district legal professional had unfairly singled out the financial institution as a scapegoat for the housing disaster. Many suspected racial and cultural bias because the underlying motivation.

“He put his cash the place his mouth was,” Cheng mentioned.

Xu, who now pictures for the New York Instances, Rolling Stone, Time, and The Atlantic, mentioned that Lee had been working proper up till he turned sick. He usually took the subway from his residence in Queens to Chinatown. The pandemic had instilled the photographer with a good higher fervor to doc and manage.

In the end, he was a creature of the town. Whereas Lee might have spent his life selling the tradition and historical past of Asian People, “When he opened his mouth, he was a New Yorker,” Cheng mentioned. “He liked his metropolis, he liked the group he grew up in.”

In October, he organized an out of doors images exhibit on Mott and Mosco streets. It might be his final.

“He did not need Chinatown to die,” Xu mentioned. “He wouldn’t let something cease him.”