Summer 2015

Lee sees exhibit through lens of a dancer

Lee sees exhibit through lens of a dancer
Jonathan Cohen
Richard Lee, MA '90, PhD '95, MM '15, lent his expertise as a professional photographer and professional ballet dancer to an exhibition of Barbara Morgan's dance photos at the Binghamton University Art Museum. He gave a demonstration of cameras and discussed the lighting of the photos during a lunchtime talk. The photo behind him is of Merce Cunningham, titled Totem Ancestor (1942) by Barbara Morgan. The lenders were Dr. and Mrs. Monroe Kornfeld.

A dancer leaps and, for an instant, appears suspended in air. The photographer reacts — click — just before gravity grabs the dancer and pulls him down.

“It’s that change of direction that I look for as a photographer,” Richard Lee, MA ’90, PhD ’95, MM ’15, explains, pointing out the technique to Binghamton University Art Museum visitors who have come to hear him talk about Barbara Morgan’s photos of dancers Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Merce Cunningham and others, taken 1935–44.

Who better to explain than Lee? He’s been both dancer and photographer.

Now 70 and a professor of sociology and director of the Fernand Braudel Center, Lee was 17 when he saw his first ballet. His reaction: “That’s what I want to do — what is that called and how do I learn it?”

Trained as a classical dancer, Lee danced, and later taught, professionally in Europe for nearly 20 years. He also moonlighted as a photographer, his instincts for timing allowing him to capture, with precision, a dancer’s movement in space and time.

“It was not glamorous; I lived out of a shoulder bag for years,” he says. “You can do that when you’re young.”

At 40, Lee retired. He enrolled in college to study political science. There, a professor suggested an article by Binghamton sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein.

“I read the article and I was sold,” Lee says. “This is the way I want to think about the world.”

It’s been 20 years since Lee earned his PhD at Binghamton, going on to pursue the cultural aspects of Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis. He no longer dances, and has put photography on hold, but he found much to talk about in Morgan’s photos.

“Photography is like literature, and what it means is as much in the viewer as it is in the photographer, but with an added technical, material dimension,” he says. “I wanted to challenge people to see things in ways they hadn’t thought of before.”


University photographer Jonathan Cohen created this portrait of Richard Lee on a digital camera. But then he got out an old film camera, similar to what Barbara Morgan used, and did it the old-fashioned way. Read a short essay by Cohen and see his film work.

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