For fifty years, Corky Lee used his camera to capture the spirit and history of the city's Asian-American community, giving a voice to a community too often unrepresented.
"If he could be everywhere, he could,” said Shirley Ng, a longtime friend. "If if there was five of him, he'd be at all these events documenting the Asian-American experience."
His work earned him the reputation as unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate. His pride in his Chinese heritage drove him to pursue what he called "photographic justice,” documenting everything from everyday New Yorkers to protests against police brutality. Ng says his death from complications of COVID-19 leaves a huge void.
"He was always about representation and justice for the Asian Americans,” said Ng.
Among his most revered works is a recreation of a photograph taken in 1869 that marked the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Lee appeared on NY1 in 2017 to talk about his mission to right a historical wrong.
"I first read when I was in junior high school that the Chinese had built the railroad,” Lee recalled. "I saw the photograph and I wondered how many Chinese were actually working on the railroad and to my dismay I didn't see any Chinese."
Lee tracked down the descendants of the Chinese immigrants that worked on the railroad to take the place of their ancestors.
"That was a huge undertaking, which took a couple of years, but he did it" said Ng.
Lee was hospitalized earlier this month with COVID-19 symptoms and was soon moved to the intensive care unit.
His passing was recognized by elected officials like Congresswoman Grace Meng, who tweeted, "He was like a walking museum. There will be many moments when we will reach back to Corky’s work to help our community move forward.”
Assemblymember Yuh Line Niou recalled his work with the youth.
"He's been a mentor. He's been a parent. He's been somebody they can count on and depend on and he's been a great guiding force for so many, so I think that it's such a huge loss in our community.”
Lee was 73 year old.