Corky Lee, Who Photographed Asian-American Life, Dies at 73

Corky Lee, a photographer who was determined both to restore the contributions of Asian-Americans to the historical record and to document their present-day lives and struggles, especially those living in New York, died on Wednesday in Queens. He was 73.

His longtime partner, Karen Zhou, said the cause was Covid-19. He had been hospitalized for much of January.

Mr. Lee, whose parents were immigrants from China, was an activist with his camera, striving to bring to light the underrepresented worlds of Chinese-Americans and others of Asian descent, as well as capturing moments of injustice toward those communities. That meant photographing police brutality, protests and run-down housing, but also shop owners at work and young people break-dancing.

“Every time I take my camera out of my bag,” he told AsAmNews last year, “it is like drawing a sword to combat indifference, injustice and discrimination and trying to get rid of stereotypes.”

For 45 years, Mr. Lee and his camera were omnipresent, and he became a sort of repository of Asian-American heritage, knowledge he shared in lectures and informal chats.

“Corky Lee is synonymous with Asian-American history in New York and beyond,” State Senator John C. Liu, a Queens Democrat, said on Twitter. “Indeed, without his efforts, much of our history may have gone unnoticed and unchronicled.”

He photographed Goldie Chu, an activist during feminism’s second wave, at an Equal Rights Amendment rally in 1977. He was in Detroit when protests erupted after two white men were not given jail time for the 1982 beating death of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American whom his killers apparently mistook for Japanese and blamed for the decline in auto jobs. He photographed Asian deliverymen picketing over wages at a Vietnamese restaurant in Greenwich Village and Indians demonstrating against anti-Hindu violence in Jersey City.

“Whenever there’s anything that’s related to Asian America, he seems to be there,” Sunita S. Mukhi, who initiated an exhibition of his works in 2013 at Stony Brook University, said at the time.

But not all his images were of strife and protest. He photographed Sonya Thomas, a Korean woman, after one of her several victories at the Coney Island hot dog eating contest. One of his favorite pictures was of Connie King, who was among the last Chinese-American residents of Locke, a rural outpost in California south of Sacramento that had once been home to immigrant workers. When white buyers took over the homes, they discarded the toilets because they didn’t want to sit where a Chinese person had sat. She repurposed them as planters, creating a sort of memorial that became something of a tourist draw.

It all started, as Mr. Lee often told the story of his career, with an omission. In junior high school, he noticed that a photograph in a textbook commemorating the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 depicted a large crowd, but that no one in it was Asian, even though thousands of workers from southern China had done much of the backbreaking labor on the line.

“History, at least photographically, says that the Chinese were not present,” he told NPR in 2014. He became determined to rectify such omissions. In 2002 he was a main organizer of a symbolic effort to correct the record regarding the railroad, gathering descendants of the railroad workers and other supporters at Golden Spike National Historical Park in Utah to recreate the image, this time with Asian-American faces. He took similar pictures in subsequent years.

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“Some people would say we’re reclaiming Chinese-American history,” Mr. Lee told the publication National Parks at the 2019 restaging. “In actuality, we’re reclaiming American history, and the Chinese contribution is part and parcel of that.”

He liked to call the railroad pictures “an act of photographic justice.”

Young Kwok Lee was born on Sept. 5, 1947, in Queens. His father, Lee Yin Chuck, started a hand-laundry business in Queens and served in World War II, and his mother, Jung Shee Lee, was a seamstress. He graduated from Queens College, where he studied American history, and started taking pictures in the early 1970s to document his work as a community organizer on the Lower East Side.

“I would take photographs of the deplorable housing conditions, much like Jacob Riis,” he told The New York Times in 2013.

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    But he would take other types of pictures as well, and one in particular propelled him into a career as a freelance photographer.

    In 1975, protests broke out in New York over police brutality in Chinatown. During one, Mr. Lee’s camera captured an image of a bloodied man being led away by officers. It ran on the front page of The New York Post.

    His work began to appear in publications of all sorts. Especially early in his career, though, getting editors interested took some effort.

    “It was hard to get the images into the papers sometimes,” Mr. Lee told The Ventura County Star of California in 2009, when the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles was featuring an exhibition of 88 of his photographs, “and I would have to explain why these events and these people were important.”

    Mr. Lee, who lived in Queens, did not confine himself to Chinese-American subjects and issues. One of his better-known photographs, taken in Central Park days after the terrorist attacks of 2001, captured a Sikh candlelight vigil intended to call attention to attacks against Sikhs, whom some people conflated with the terrorists. The central figure in the picture is wrapped in an American flag. In a 2002 article about Mr. Lee, The Times described him this way:

    “Anything that happens in the lives of Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Indian-Americans, Pakistani-Americans, Sri Lankan-Americans, Hmong-Americans, Thai-Americans, Cambodian-Americans, Burmese-Americans, Filipino-Americans, Malaysian-Americans, Hawaiians and other Asian-Pacific Americans is Corky Lee’s business.”

    Once he became established, his work was frequently assembled for museum and gallery shows, including one at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in New York in 2001.

    “Mr. Lee’s approach is intimate, without sentimentality or editorializing,” Holland Cotter wrote in a review of that show in The Times. “He’s an insider but also an observer, in front of the camera and behind it.”

    Mr. Lee’s wife of many years, Margaret Dea, died in 2001. In addition to Ms. Zhou, he is survived by a brother, John.

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