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Remembering Corky Lee, Legendary Photographer Who Captured Asian American Life

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's a photograph from 2014 of two trains facing each other against a wide-open sky. Gathered between the trains and on top of them are a group of Chinese Americans - young, old, some dressed in the style of the 1800s, others in modern jackets and jeans. The photo was taken by Corky Lee, a man known for bringing Asian Americans to the forefront of history through his work. Corky Lee died this week at the age of 73 from complications of COVID-19. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: That picture, the one of the Chinese Americans in front of the two trains, was actually a recreation of a famous photo from 1869. It was taken at the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in Utah. Yes, that famous photo had two trains, a big sky and people celebrating the railroad.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "PUBLIC INTEREST")

CORKY LEE: But when you look closely at the photograph, there are no Chinese in that photograph. It always irked me why they were not there.

LIMBONG: That's Corky Lee calling into WAMU's "Public Interest" in 2000. The workforce who made that railroad was mostly Chinese, and their omission drove Corky Lee's career in photography.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "PUBLIC INTEREST")

C LEE: Knowing that the Chinese were not recognized for their accomplishments, I guess I unwittingly wound up dedicating myself to doing that.

SAMANTHA CHENG: Corky puts his money where his mouth is. He puts his camera where his mouth is.

LIMBONG: Samantha Cheng is a veteran broadcast journalist and a friend of Lee's. She says Lee was always freelance. He maintained a full-time job at a print shop for the money but was devoted to photographing Asian American events, issues and protests.

CHENG: Because the traditional broadcast journalists, the traditional photojournalists had very little interest in capturing these stories. And he made it his mission that these stories would not go unnoticed.

LIMBONG: Corky Lee was born Lee Young Kwok in Queens, N.Y. After his brother was drafted into the Vietnam War, Lee got more invested politically, started organizing in Manhattan's Chinatown. That's when he started taking pictures of the housing conditions, of political actions and youth activities. He brought his other brother, John Lee, with him.

JOHN LEE: There were a group of us that were photographing it, but it was Corky who kind of took that on and realized that this was a history that needed to be rediscovered, recorded and advanced.

LIMBONG: In 1975, Lee landed a photo on the front page of the New York Post. It was of a Chinese man, bloodied by a New York cop. Another famous photo of his, taken at a vigil shortly after 9/11, is of a Sikh man, fingers clasped in front of him and an American flag wrapped around his shoulders. Lee won a journalism award for that photo, but at a lecture in 2003 for the City University of New York, he told the room that the award was a little tainted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

C LEE: The judge said that there was a compelling, devious stare on the individual. And, you know, I disagree.

LIMBONG: What you can see plainly, though, in that picture and in the rest of Corky Lee's work is a history of America.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.