Historic Prints

Historic Prints of the PSA Print Collection:

Modernistic, ca. 1950s, by Wellington Lee, HonPSA, FPSA, Hon EFIAP, Hon FPSNY

Sepia toned silver print, 20" x 16"


The PSA collection contains numerous prints by Wellington Lee, including  several unique figure studies made in his New York studio that he opened in 1948. What is most unusual about these photographs is the use of elaborate Surrealist-influenced studio sets Lee constructed. While nothing has been written about why the photographer liked such backgrounds, clues might lie in what he was quoted as saying when asked about the ‘artistic' nature of his work. “Art is not reality, art is an interpretation; what we see in the mind's eye. Lee also stated that he liked using ballet dancers for his models because “they have attractive physical forms and provide meaningful and graceful poses.

It's fair then to assume that Wellington Lee's figure studies were staged like dance performances. Interestingly, in 1950s movies, actor/dancers like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were creating scenes that involved Surrealist sets. Lee's contemporaries – in studio portrait and fashion – would have been photographers like Edward Steichen, Nicolas Murray, Hoyningen Huene, and Norman Parkinson, all of whom favored three-dimensional, constructed backdrops compared to the seamless backgrounds that are more typical of today's fashion photos. However, none were quite as consistent as Lee's.

Compositionally Lee used distorted perspectives, another tenet of Surrealist art. In Modernistic, the model is absolutely perpendicular to the plain of the studio floor, but the painted backdrop on which she lies is purposely skewed, as is the actual plywood construction behind her. The structure has a door-like opening and the model's pose, with a raised hand and pointed finger, seems to beckon the viewer to enter a portal. The theatrical lighting of the scene adds contrast and depth to the image.

Even though a majority of Lee's studio photographs were made in black and white, his prints were often sepia toned. He did use color for a few; the pallet being limited to bright clash colors like red and yellow with the model usually dressed in black. Still, the contrast achieved in Lee's black and white photographs worked well and added to the theatricality of the images.

Wellington Lee was born in a village near Canton, China in 1918 but migrated to New York as a US citizen in 1935. He started photography in the summer of 1937 when he bought a 620 folding camera and made his first photographs. Winning awards encouraged him to go further into the study of photography and art at the New York School of Art and Design. There he received the highest honor – The Alumni Award for attaining the highest marks in the photography course ever given in the school's history.  Immediately after graduation he was inducted into the US armed forces where he received a commendation for special work.  After an honorary discharge from the armed forces, Lee worked in Jon's Fashion Studio, New York for three years and at Rick's Fashion Studio for one year. When he won the Grand Prize of $5,000 in Popular Photography's 1948 International Picture Contest, he opened the Wellington Lee Studio in New York's Chinatown.

Lee participated in numerous international photo competitions and became the founder of the Photo Society of New York, chairing many committees both in America and over seas. His record is outstanding in many respects; he had more than 17,000 prints accepted in 15,000 juried salons and won over 1,500 awards in recognized PSA International Salons earning him the PSA Diamond Star in Color Prints, Monochrome Prints and Color Slides, and 5 Stars in Stereo Slides.

Mr. Lee won many awards from the Photographic Society of America including the USA Freedom Fountain Award – for bringing better understanding through photography – the cultural award from the Education Ministry of the Republic of China – for services and excellence in photography – the Peabody Award of the PSA – for the person who had contributed the most to the field of pictorial photography, and the John Doscher Award for excellence in classical photography. The PSA declared Lee as one of the ten most outstanding photographic artists of the 20-21st century. A publication on his work, “Photo-Art”, was produced in 1998 but is now out of print. Wellington Lee died in New York in 2001.