Through his powerful photographs, Corky Lee, also known as the “undisputed, unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate,” has irrevocably changed the Asian American community. There are many aspects of his life that frequently go unrecognised, despite the fact that his contributions to American history and his enthusiasm for documenting the Asian American experience are well recognised. Here are a few little-known details about Corky Lee that can help you understand him more fully.
Education and Early Life: The second of five children, Lee was born in Queens, New York, in 1948. He studied at Queens College in Flushing and earned a degree in American history there. His love in photography first began to grow during his time in college and eventually became a lifelong obsession.
Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad Image: Lee once said how an image of the Golden Spike Ceremony, which commemorated the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion in 1869, ignited his love of photography. He set out on his endeavour to provide a visual voice to the Asian American experience after observing that none of the Chinese workers who had made significant contributions to the building were depicted in the shot. He promised to use his lens to correct this historical “mistake.”
A devoted activist, Lee was involved in numerous social justice movements in addition to being well-known for his photography. Lee began using his camera as a tool for change while he was a college student participating in anti-war protests during the Vietnam War. Additionally, he participated in Civil Rights Movement demonstrations, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he actively joined the Asian American movement.
Career with several facets: Before focusing solely on photography, Lee worked a number of occupations. He held jobs as a graphic artist, a community organiser, and even a medical photographer. His wide range of professional experiences were essential in forming his viewpoint as a photographer.
Recognition and accolades: Lee has received numerous accolades and honours, some of which are less well-known, for his substantial work in the field of photography. In 1975, he was given the Photographer of the Year award by the New York Press Photographers Association. He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Asian American Journalists Association’s New York chapter in 2002. He was given the Pioneer Award by the Organisation of Chinese Americans in 2014.
The Asian American Movement: Lee’s contributions extended beyond his job as a photographer. He had a significant role in the Asian American Movement, a sociopolitical movement that sought to influence things like immigration laws and racial identity. He contributed to the creation of a photographic record of the movement’s challenges and victories, as well as its development and events.
A Historical Moment Recreated: In 2014, to commemorate the 145th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion, Lee organised a recreation of the 1869 image. The historical error that had initially motivated his career was corrected this time around by include the offspring of the Chinese workers who had been left out of the earlier shot.
The Asian American experience has been highlighted through Corky Lee’s work, and his dedication to social justice is demonstrated by the way he lived. His life’s work was to aggressively pursue his love for unearthing obscure or underappreciated facets of Asian American history. These little-known facts about Corky Lee further strengthen our comprehension of his enormous influence on the greater tale of Asian American history, both within the field of photography and beyond.
Image courtesy : www.asiancinevision.org
Corky Lee interviewing former New York City Mayor Ed Koch at an AAIFF Opening, circa 1980s.