Corky Lee identified himself on his business cards as the “Undisputed, Unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate.” Few people familiar with his work would have argued with the title.
For half a century, Lee, the American-born son of Chinese immigrants and a largely self-trained photojournalist, dedicated himself to documenting a community that had long gone unseen.
In poignant, often searing images, he chronicled the indignities and prejudice Asian Americans endured, their struggles for better working and living conditions, their holidays and celebrations that brought added vibrancy to the cultural fabric of the United States, and everyday realities of their existence.
His work, which appeared in media outlets including the New York Times, Time magazine and the Associated Press, as well as in museums including the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, was, in his words, an act of “photographic justice.”
“One of my quests is not for people to remember who I am or what I represent,” Lee said in the 2013 documentary film “Not on the Menu: Corky Lee’s Life and Work” by Junru Huang. But if one day someone discovers his photographs, trying “to look at what were concerns of Chinese Americans or Asian-Pacific Americans and see and understand or try to understand,” he added, “then my job is done.”
Lee died Jan. 27 at a hospital in Queens, where he grew up working in the hand laundry his parents operated. He was 73. The cause was covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, said a family spokesperson, Samantha Cheng.
In the past year, according to information released by his family, Lee had sought to document racially motivated attacks on Asian Americans amid the global spread of the coronavirus, which was first detected in China.
Lee traced his interest in photography to his time in junior high school, when he studied an iconic photograph marking the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. The photograph, taken at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, depicts a champagne toasting where scores of workers surround two chief engineers shaking hands.
Inspecting the photograph with a magnifying glass, Lee found in the crowd not one of the thousands of Chinese laborers who had worked on the project.
“History – at least photographically – says that the Chinese were not present,” Lee told NPR.
That image represented an example of what Lee described as the “invisibility” of Asian Americans. Through his photography, he sought to restore their presence in the collective American vision.
“I had to think that every time I take my camera out of my bag, it is like drawing a sword to combat indifference, injustice and discrimination and trying to get rid of stereotypes,” he once told the publication AsAmNews.
Lee took one of his most noted photographs in 1975, when thousands of Chinese and Chinese American protesters marched from the Chinatown neighborhood of New York to City Hall to denounce police brutality. Lee’s photograph of a bleeding protester being escorted away by police ran on the front page of the New York Post, according to a 2002 account in the New York Times.
“That sort of convinced me that perhaps my calling was photojournalism,” Lee said in the documentary film.
Although he was best known for his photographs of New York, Lee traveled around the country for his work, including to Detroit in 1983, where he chronicled protests following the death the previous year of Vincent Chin.
Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two autoworkers who apparently believed he was Japanese, and therefore to blame for the struggles of American automakers to compete with Japan’s auto industry. His assailants, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges, were placed on probation and fined, sparking an outcry over the light sentence.
Mr. Lee documented efforts on behalf of Japanese Americans placed in internment camps during World War II, protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a vigil in Central Park by Sikh Americans who had been the target of xenophobic attacks. Korean, Filipino, Indian and Pakistani celebrations also all caught his interest.
Some of Lee’s most meaningful images were also the most ordinary – a lonely Singer sewing machine where tired hands had labored, a Chinese couple posing proudly in their crowded home.
“His photographs tell stories about a rarely seen city,” a reporter for the Times once wrote, “sewing factories that double as day-care centers, restaurants that exploit fresh-off-the-boat workers, tea ceremonies that test a young couple’s faith in tradition.”
Karen Zhou, a photographer who said she was Lee’s partner of more than 15 years, recalled that he did not have a car but knew how to travel New York City “from one end to another.”
“He knew the city inside out,” she remarked.
Young Kwok Lee was born in New York in September 1947. He was the first member of his family to attend a university, studying American history at Queens College, and said that he began experimenting with photography using borrowed cameras.
Lee began his professional life as a community organizer in New York’s Chinatown, working with a social services organization that dealt with tenant-landlord disputes.
“I would take photographs of the deplorable housing conditions, much like Jacob Riis,” he told the Times, referring to the social reformer who documented the slums of New York in the late 19th century.
Lee and fellow organizers assisted renters in withholding rent until landlords made improvements to their homes. “You feel good about some of these changes that you can bring about through photography and organizing,” Mr. Lee said in the documentary.
During his years as a freelance journalist, Mr. Lee also worked at a printing company in Brooklyn. He said he often struggled to persuade editors that the people and scenes he photographed mattered.
In 2002, in a form of redress for the historical omission that launched his career, Lee gathered a group of Chinese Americans at the spot in Utah where the photo celebrating the Transcontinental Railroad had been taken – and took their picture. He repeated the photograph, including with descendants of the original laborers, in later years.
Lee was predeceased by his wife, Margaret Dea Lee. Survivors include a brother.
Two decades ago, the publication AsianWeek asked Lee how he might caption his own life. He replied: “Here’s Corky Lee. He tried to photograph life as it was. Sometimes he succeeded.”