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August 1-7, 1997
|PHOTO BY LIA CHANG|
|New York Pose: Corky Lee, whose card reads "Undisputed, unofficial photographer laureate," takes a break from the festivities at the Philippine Independence Day celebration for a few moments in the shade in Madison Square Park in New York.|
Pictures at an Exhibition
BY LIA CHANG
|For a quarter of a century, photojournalist Corky
Lee's life mission has been to document the incredibly
diverse Asian Pacific American communities which so often
are ignored by the mainstream media. With his lens, Lee
has single-mindedly sought to unravel the mystery that
surrounds soci-ety's perception of Asian Pacific
His mission has brought him to places such as a Chinatown bar at dawn, a press conference on rising rates of anti-Asian violence, a Chinese New Year's parade, and a picket line. If there's something historical and Asian American to shoot, he's the man many people first think of to call.
After three solid days of shooting at the 20th Annual Asian American International Film Festival in New York City, Lee agreed to put down his camera and focus on his life and his work. At once intensely personal and socially conscious, Lee's self-styled photojournalism has received more exposure and recognition as the APA community increases its presence in mainstream society.
In fact, his current exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History--titled "Asian Pacific Americans: Their Cultures, Their Experiences" and originally scheduled for display during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month--proved to be so popular it has been extended through Aug. 17.
"My images at the American Museum of Natural History are the missing pages of American textbooks," Lee explained. "Each photograph represents a page of information or history, and focuses on the neglected or omitted experiences and struggles of people who come to the United States from Pacific shores."
From Asian Americans fully engaged at protest rallies to Washington state Gov. Gary Locke and his wife Mona Lee, from Filipino pizza makers and Korean kosher-deli owners to a Chinese woman taxi driver, Lee's eclectic collection of more than 40 photographs--which is sandwiched between the Mars exhibit and the dinosaurs in the education wing of the museum--is a visual record of Asians trying to find their place in America.
Teddy Yoshikami, the museum's education director and curator of the exhibit, enthused, "An exhibit of this nature is a first. By having Lee's work at the museum, the public can see the diverse Asian American population in America and change the stereotypical view. It is a unique step for the museum, as photography exhibits are not usually hung in this department [the education wing] of the museum."
Born and raised in Queens, N.Y., Lee is a second-generation Chinese American and the eldest son of an immigrant laundryman. A former student of American history, he combines artistic and political themes in his work, arguing that both are needed to capture the complete APA experience. He was a student at Queens College when he recognized what he calls the "huge void" in recording the history of Chinese Americans.
"If you look at the history books, the only time the Chinese are mentioned is when they have these two railroads facing each other at the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869," Lee said. "After that the Chinese disappeared; you assume they wound up in Chinatowns and that was the last you'd ever hear of them.
"I was concerned about Chinese American history and wanted to do independent studies on Chinese in American history. This geared me up for Japanese American history, the redress and reparations movement which took place beginning in the '70s and culminated in the '80s. My coverage of the Korean, Filipino, and Southeast Asian communities followed suit."
He borrowed his first camera, a Pentax, in the early '70s from roommate Bob Hsiang, who along with Gordon Lee served as his mentors. Together they formed the Asian Media Collective. In the early days, his slide shows raised money for Yellow Pearl, a collection of Asian American song and poetry by second- and third-generation Asian Americans from the early '70s. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he photographed protests by Asian Americans against the war.
|Corky Lee on his work:
|"The social aspect of what I wanted
to do took precedence over the technical aspects of not
having a formal education in photography," Lee said.
"In photojournalism you do not need a strong, formal
technical background; you need a better social
Lee's first professional photo success was a double sale of a photo of a bar shooting in New York to the New York Times and the New York Post in December 1974. He has had his work published in Time magazine as well as throughout the Asian ethnic press.
He even went on to adopt--tongue in cheek--the title "undisputed, unofficial Asian American photographer laureate" after meeting his cultural hero Muhammed Ali. "I actually photographed Muhammed Ali when he came through Chinatown," Lee recalled. "I didn't get to shake his hand, and I didn't pose next to him. Instead, I asked if he intended to go to China. 'Sure,' he said, 'I'll fight anybody; I'm the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world!'"
Lee, a frequent contributor to AsianWeek, has captured images of some of the most vivid and defining moments in APA history. He covered a demonstration of 20,000 Chinese Americans protesting police brutality in 1975. "For the first time, Chinese Americans were exercising their constitutional right to protest," he noted. His photo of a Chinese man being beaten by police helped win a court case. He also took before-and-after photographs for a housing group in the Two Bridges community near Chinatown (Brooklyn and Manhattan) that organized tenants to take on landlords who did not provide adequate services.
Lee balances a full-time job at a printing operation with his lifetime mission of community activism through photography. A member of the Asian American Journalists Association since 1987, he was honored in August 1993 with AAJA's Special Recognition Award for his leadership and community activism at that year's convention in Los Angeles. Also in 1993, May 7 was proclaimed "Corky Lee Day" in New York City; it was his second "day." (May 5, 1988, was his first, proclaimed by former Mayor David Dinkins in recognition of his body of work.) Lee also was one of the honorees at an "All Star Salute to Chinese American Cultural Pioneers" at City Hall in July 1993. Rounding out a banner year, he received the photographer-artist-in-residence award at Lightwork on the campus of Syracuse University.
For someone who has had his eyes on Asian America and can claim to have "been there," Lee is at heart a modest man. When asked about his legacy with the APA community, he said the jury is still out. "I don't know what is going to be chiseled on my tombstone--I'm no Wayne Wang, Ang Lee, or Frank Chin," he reflected. "I'm more concerned about the next photograph and getting the next assignment done so that I can move on to the next one."
Like a Chinese American Charles Kuralt, Lee intends to continue searching for the hidden truths of Asian America.
"I'm just trying to bring a more balanced portrayal of Asian Pacific Americans in the American mainstream--a very simple request," Lee said. "I know how difficult it is. I've devoted this much of my life and I guess I'll devote the rest of my life till I can't take any more photographs."
"Asian Pacific Americans: Their Cultures, Their Experiences" by Corky Lee remains on view at the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, through Aug. 17. For more information or to make an appointment to visit the Leonhardt People Center, where a few additional photographs are on display, call 212-769-5315.
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