Corky Lee Remembered for Documenting Asian America

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COVID-19 claims legendary photographer who chronicled Asian American experience.

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Corky Lee with his photo of Muhammad Ali in 2008 at a career retrospective held at the Chinese American Museum (CAM) and El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

Corky Lee, a New York-based photojournalist whose work spanned five decades and covered subjects from the Asian American Movement in the 1970s to the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, has passed away at the age of 73 due to complications from COVID-19.

A self-taught photographer, Lee is remembered for his ability to capture many of America’s most defining moments, and his work appeared in The New York Times, Time magazine, The New York Post, The New York Daily News, Associated Press, and many Asian American publications.

When Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña decided to capture the Asian American story in a wide-ranging documentary for PBS, she knew it had to include the iconic photos by her dear friend, Corky Lee.

“Corky was always around the community with his camera,” she said. “In 40 years, I think I’ve seen him once without his camera and I remember ribbing him about that. In the early years of his career at a time we [Asian Americans] were virtually invisible … he made sure we were pictured, that we were seen.

“He was so ubiquitous we used to take it for granted that, yes, Corky would be there with his camera. He would photograph everything — cultural events, the Japanese American redress and reparations movement, labor strikes, protests against Michael Cimino’s ‘Year of the Dragon’ and [other]racist films, and of course the campaign for justice for Vincent Chin. And that’s only the 1980s — not to mention the seminal work he did in the ’70s, covering the 1975 Peter Yew police brutality case in New York’s Chinatown, the Asian American student movement, etc.

“In the ’90s, and the new millennium, Corky kept on photographing and kept mentoring generations of new documentarians and journalists.”

A police brutality photo taken by Corky Lee in 1978. Self-taught, Lee captured scenes of labor, protest, resistance, celebration and community events that defined Asian Americans over five decades. (Corky Lee)

Tajima-Peña filmed the 150th commemoration of the Golden Spike for the PBS “Asian Americans” series in large part because of the first pilgrimage that Lee helped to organize at Promontory Point in Utah. “He was relentless about rectifying the fact that Chinese workers were erased from that famous ‘Champagne photo’ of the meeting of the Transcontinental Railroad … and of course, Corky was there armed with a camera, sitting high up on a ladder above the crowd of descendants of Chinese railroad workers.”

Dr. Gay Yuen, Friends of the Chinese American Museum (CAM) president, recalls, “Immediately after the [Golden Spike] ceremony in Utah, he sent two of the iconic photos to the museum so that we could auction it off to help us raise money. He loved CAM and was always ready to help our museum.

“The Chinese American community [has]lost a giant.”

In 2008, the museum presented Lee’s first major mid-career retrospective. Suellen Cheng, CAM founding executive director, recalls, “No other photographer in America has single-handedly taken on the responsibility of documenting modern Asian America. [He] became indispensable to how it is viewed, taught and demystified. We are indeed saddened by Corky’s passing.”

On Lee’s legacy, Tajima-Peña notes, “Corky also photographed people. Kids, elders, artists, life on the streets of Asian America. He considered his camera to be a sword wielded against stereotypes and injustice.

“And so, Corky’s left us with a lot of ammunition, because his photos years and decades later continue to arm us and tell our story as Asian Americans through our own lens.”

Nov. 15, 2008: As a program heralding a mid-career retrospective of his work commences at the Chinese American Museum’s headquarters at El Pueblo de Los Angeles, celebrated documentary photographer Corky Lee is greeted by Tom Eng (left) of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California and by Mario Reyes of The Rafu Shimpo. (Photo by Abraham Ferrer/Visual Communications Photographic Archive)

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