‘Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story’ does justice to the late photographer’s legacy

THE PROLIFIC PHOTOGRA-PHER ­— Corky Lee (R) photographed a Sikh man wrapped in an American flag to show his patriotism in New York just days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. photo by Corky Lee

Anyone who isn’t immersed in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community may not be familiar with the name Corky Lee. But to AAPI community organizers and Asian American journalists, the name is legendary.

Corky Lee, who decades ago gave himself the title of “undisputed unofficial Asian American photographer laureate,” died in January 2021 at age 73 of COVID-19, which he may have caught while covering the ongoing attacks against Asians in his beloved hometown of New York City. If you knew Corky, you knew that the jokey title that he put on his business cards was, in fact, accurate. For five decades, Corky captured the evolution of the Asian American Movement, from anti-war to pro-housing, from New York’s Chinatown to Detroit’s protests following the murder of Vincent Chin, and to his images of other Asian American communities, including Japanese Americans, South Asians and many more.

THE PROLIFIC PHOTOGRA-PHER ­— Corky Lee (R) photographed a Sikh man wrapped in an American flag to show his patriotism in New York just days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. photo by Corky Lee

His passion for recording the community on film and more recently as pixels with digital cameras made him a familiar presence at any New York City community social justice event, protest or march. Many of his photographs are iconic, like the Sikh man wrapped in an American flag to show his patriotism just days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York.

And one photograph he didn’t capture during a protest — he created an event to get the image. That’s his personal protest against the historic photograph celebrating the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah. The photograph captures dozens of people dressed in finery hoisting glasses and smiling to mark the historic milestone. The railroad was laid with the labor of thousands of Chinese workers, who were often given the most dangerous jobs, like dynamiting tunnels through the Sierra Nevada mountains (many died). But the Chinese laborers were not allowed to celebrate the railroad’s completion. Corky took it upon himself to invite AAPI community members and descendants of Chinese laborers to Promontory Point to pose a racially flipped photograph.

He called that image “Photographic Justice,” which is the title that filmmaker Jennifer Takaki adopted for her powerful feature-length documentary about Corky Lee. “Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story” began as a five-minute short profile of the photographer, whom Takaki found fascinating for his single mindedness. That was 20 years ago, when Takaki first met Lee in the New York cauldron of Asian American media types. Corky was a fixture within the Asian American Journalists Association and attended the organization’s annual conferences across the country. He donated framed prints of his work for the AAJA’s silent auction at each convention, spreading his vision, and passion, outside of the New York scene.

Takaki pays terrific homage to Corky’s New York roots. Once she decided to film Corky, she followed him constantly as he foraged for subjects to capture with his lenses. She interviewed Corky, his friends and family multiple times to get their perspective on the photographer. The documentary includes a hilarious story about Corky’s mom, who went to the Museum of Chinese in America to attend an exhibit of her son’s work. But she was told at the door that the museum was closed. But she pulled rank — and Asian elderly rank at that — and insisted they let her in.

But Takaki also lets Corky talk (he loved to talk) about his artistic and journalistic process, getting him to explain how he juggles his equipment when he’s out prowling for subjects. And there’s a moving scene where she captures Corky engaging a group of young Asian American photographers who have come to pay him homage. He clearly loved being the center of attention, but he also clearly loved helping the next generation of photographers hone their craft and mentoring them. There were scant few AAPI professionals photographers in the mainstream media when he was a young man starting to capture his community on camera.

Takaki credits her film’s editor, Linda Hattendorf, who directed the documentary “The Cats of Mirikitani” about a homeless Japanese American artist in New York, for the pace and narrative strength of the film. She also credits her production crew for adding extra finishing touches to the documentary, like animated segments that break up the talking-head flow of all bio-docs.

Her crew also stepped in when she wasn’t available to film segments like emotional footage of the hearse driving down a street as people from the AAPI community, Asian American veterans and first responders that Corky loved to pay homage to, somberly paying tribute as he rolled by.

Takaki also humanized Corky by showing him in the print shop where he worked, and expressing his grief for his late wife and then crediting his longtime partner, Karen Zhou.

Takaki squeezed a lot about the artist, journalist and historian (he could recite the history of Asian immigration to the U.S. nonstop) into the film, and it really does justice to Corky’s work, his memory and legacy.

And the film will help introduce Corky to a wider audience with its CAAMFest screening.

Gil Asakawa was honored to know Corky and he and his wife stored the framed photos from a Denver exhibit for a year before he asked for them to be shipped to a gallery in New England.
Asakawa also interviewed filmmaker Jennifer Takaki and Corky Lee’s brother John for stories for CAAMFest.
The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival will screen “Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story” (2022), 87 min. by Jennifer Takaki May 7 at 3 p.m. at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum at 100 N Central Ave. in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. Tickets: $16.79 (includes online fee): http://ow.ly/hpUb50NR3vP. CAAMFest will also screen the film May 14 at The Great Star Theater at 636 Jackson St. in San Francisco at 3 p.m. Tickets: $15 general, $13 senior/student: https://caamfest.com/2023/movies/photographic-justice-the-corky-lee-story/. A Q-and-A-format session will follow both screenings.

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