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KNOXVILLE—To art professor Baldwin Lee, the place known as Ground Zero was always just “home.”

Baldwin Lee Ground Zero collageLee, 60, was born and raised in Chinatown in New York City. As a youngster, he spent a lot of time in the neighborhood where the World Trade Center towers were eventually built. As a college student and budding photographer, he shot hundreds of photos of the newly built twin towers. And, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Lee returned to the area to chronicle the destruction, as well as the reaction of people who had come to see Ground Zero and pay their respects to those who died there. His photo montages have been displayed in the Knoxville Museum of Art.

“When I was a boy, my father had his business, a factory that manufactured Chinese noodles, just three blocks from what would become the site of the World Trade Center,” he said.

Lee recalled how he would go to the neighborhood on weekends, when city traffic was practically nonexistent.

Baldwin Lee Ground Zero collage“It was in that area where I learned to ride a bicycle,” he said. He also loved to shop on Cortland Street, a road that ran right through the area. It was called “radio row” because of the many mom-and-pop electronics shops there. He would buy parts for radios, metal detectors, and other gadgets.

While getting his bachelor’s degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his Master of Fine Arts at Yale, Lee would visit his parents’ house and take his old-fashioned tripod camera to the area. During that time—the early 1970s—he shot hundreds of stark, black-and-white images of the area, with the newly built World Trade Center towers prominent in almost every shot.

“The thought never occurred to me that one day they just wouldn’t be there,” he said.

Lee came to UT as a faculty member in 1982.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he was teaching a class in the Art and Architecture building.

“A student came in and said, ‘do you know what’s happened in New York?'”

Lee was horrified at what had happened—and he was very worried about family members still in New York.

Baldwin Lee Ground Zero collage“My mother could see the World Trade Center from her high-rise apartment building,” he said. With phone lines down, it took him hours to reach her to make sure she was okay.

In October 2001, Lee went back to New York to photograph the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. He got as close as he could to Ground Zero, which was cordoned off by fences. He found a spot where he could see the wreckage in the background and then, pivoting in a circle, snapped digital photo after digital photo. He captured the pained expression of people gazing at the site, memorials left in the street, and the remnants of the buildings. The photos were then cut and pieced together into montages that give a 360-degree view of the scene.

“It’s a little bit like film, too,” he said, “From the first shot to the last shot, a few minutes had passed.”

The montages were exhibited at the Knoxville Museum of Art on the first anniversary of 9/11.

Lee said it’s hard to believe ten years have passed.

“When I was in New York, I would always use the World Trade Center as a reference point,” he said. He’d emerge from a subway and immediately look for the towers to get his bearings.

“It was reassuring,” he said. “Even today, when I go to New York, I look for the World Trade Center.”

To see Lee’s work, visit http://www.baldwinlee.com.

C O N T A C T :

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, ablakely@utk.edu)