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The Vision of Photographer Corky Lee, the Subject of Two Documentaries, Lives on in a New Book

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Nobody captured the rise and influence of the Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander community in the United States, and especially in New York City, more passionately than photojournalist Corky Lee, who called himself the “undisputed unofficial Asian American photographer laureate.” Since the 1970s, he chronicled his beloved Chinatown community in the Big Apple, as well as the protests and political awakening of Asian Americans across the U.S. with a passion and thoroughness that other photographers could not, or would not. Newspapers and wire services learned to turn to Lee if they were covering a story about the AANHPI community.

Corky Lee had talked for years about leaving a record of his voluminous work in a book. But sadly, he passed away in 2021 of COVID – after shooting photos at a protest in Chinatown – before he could finally get a photo book published. In 2023, he was recorded in another way, with two documentaries about Lee – Jennifer Takaki’s feature-length film Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story and Curtis Chin’s short documentary Dear Corky. In 2024, his dream of a book of his images has finally come true.

Reprinted with permission from Corky Lee's Asian America: Fifty Years of Photographic Justice. Copyright © 2024 by the Estate of Corky Lee, Mae Ngai, and Chee Wang Ng. Text copyright © 2024 by Mae Ngai unless otherwise noted. Photographs copyright © 2024 by the Estate of Corky Lee unless otherwise noted. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

Reprinted with permission from Corky Lee’s Asian America: Fifty Years of Photographic Justice.

On April 9, Clarkson Potter will release Corky Lee’s Asian America: Fifty Years of Photographic Justice in hardcover and Kindle edition, featuring more than 200 of Corky’s images and essays by a who’s who of notable AANHPI friends, artists and activists including a foreword from writer Hua Hsu and tributes from artist Ai Weiwei, filmmaker Renée Tajima-Peña, writer Helen Zia, photographer Alan Chin, historian Gordon Chang, playwright David Henry Hwang, and others.

The book is edited by Chee Wang Ng and Columbia University history professor Mae Ngai, but the driving force behind the book’s publication is John Lee, Corky’s brother. He calls himself “Johann” because that’s the nickname his brother used for him. An attorney based in San Diego, Johann is the executor of Corky’s estate.

“My position from the outset was that I would exercise very little editorial control,” Johann says. “Yeah, I didn’t want it to be my book. And one of the one of the one of the, one of the shortcomings I know, we’re going to get grief about this is that, you know, any number of people who have worked with Corky are gonna say, ‘well, this isn’t Corky’s book, because we know that Corky notoriously didn’t leave instructions.’ But we did the best that we could.”

The book covers the breadth of Corky’s career in both black and white images. Although the general public may not be familiar with the photographs, people in the Asian American communities across the country would recognize many of them, including the Sikh man wrapped in an American flag after 9/11, or the group shot he organized to capture the forgotten history of Chinese railroad workers who helped complete the Transcontinental Railroad. Corky invited the descendants of those laborers to assemble at Promontory Point, Utah, where a famous historical photo of people celebrating the completion of the railroad with two locomotives nose to nose was shot – but without any Chinese workers, who were told to stay miles away. Corky’s revision of the image poses Asian Americans in the same positions as the old photograph.

Reprinted with permission from Corky Lee's Asian America: Fifty Years of Photographic Justice. Copyright © 2024 by the Estate of Corky Lee, Mae Ngai, and Chee Wang Ng. Text copyright © 2024 by Mae Ngai unless otherwise noted. Photographs copyright © 2024 by the Estate of Corky Lee unless otherwise noted. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

Reprinted with permission from Corky Lee’s Asian America: Fifty Years of Photographic Justice.

Corky seemingly attended every protest or community event for decades in his beloved New York City, but also traveled across the country – often for conferences of the Asian American Journalists Association, where he always donated photographs to auction for the organization.

Corky kept all his negatives, negatives, and black and white proof sheets and loose leaf binders. “We hit some technical issues,” Johann explains. Some of the negatives were damaged, and just the volume of material to curate was a challenge. “When you’ve got 50 years of stuff, you know that’s a lot, plus we kept discovering new photos. So we were pulling stuff out and slipping stuff back. There were photos that some of us had recollections of having seen but then we had to try to locate them.” (A photo of Corky taken by this writer is included in the book.)

In the year and a half since Corky Lee’s death at 73, he’s received some attention that he generally shunned for himself. Not only is his book finally coming out, and two documentaries focused on his life and work, but the national mainstream media gave him props after his passing.

Peter Yew rally

Demonstrators in New York protest the police beating of Peter Yew in 1976, Image Credit: Corky Lee

In 2023 the Chinese American Museum in Washington D.C. gave him an aptly titled solo exhibition that closed in January 2024, a longtime dream of Corky’s that was titled Thank You, Corky Lee. And late last year, a street in New York’s Chinatown was officially renamed Corky Lee Way, with Johann giving remarks at the ceremony for the occasion. Various museums and philanthropic groups and universities are interested in hosting Corky’s collection. Johann is also planning to form a philanthropic foundation to continue Corky’s social justice work and to inspire future generations of AANHPI photojournalists with fellowships.

Corky may be gone, but he’s on a roll, and now, his legacy to the community, visually giving Asian Americans a sense of identity in a turbulent time of anti-Asian hate and political demagoguery and the terrible virus that killed him, can be properly appreciated.

For the book’s dedication, Johann says,“Writing in Corky’s stead we elected to dedicate it: ‘To the Asian American Pacific Islander communities in the United States who strive for recognition, respect, and equality and who inspired these photographs.’”

It’s easy to imagine Corky Lee smiling at these words from wherever he might be.
 
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