Corky spoke to everyone like he already knew them. I dared to think this familiarity was initially our special connection as photographers who pen the flow of human persona through place, but such self flattery vanished when observing Corky in his element. Not with a camera, but on the block – in community, speaking to everyone like they were his people.

Tuesday September 29th 2020

Our mutual friends at ThinkChinatown introduced us in advance so I was aware of Corky’s decades worth of documenting Chinese American history that took the shape of horizontal and occasionally vertical photographs – almost exclusively black and white. He spoke my love language. Deep blacks, happy whites, and more tones of grey than the primary and secondary colors combined – all playing their part to orchestrate a singular human expression in 1/60th of a second. I nerd out on black and white photos. I wonder about f-stops. I muse about how the earth performed that day on the photographer, especially if that person had to go through the infinite choreography of loading a roll of film into the back of a camera body. An experienced shooter can do it in seconds but the first few times you try it feels like learning to ride a bike. If you screw it up, all those compositions are naught. Similarly, commanding a space to get your picture can be awkward at first but experienced shooters know no strangers. We’re all characters in a composition that is more like live jazz than prints object – the photograph is the sheet music and the song. The viewer makes the music. I met Corky in a gallery and received a personal tour of his lyrical works.

“Your the guy from Black Gotham. Cool. Let me show you my pictures.”

It went something like that. Behind masks in a long gallery with low ceilings Corky explained the history behind each image. I asked few questions because he knew what I wanted to know. How he busted his head getting a shot. How he photographed protests against police brutality decades ago and how these same protests continue today. Where his photos have been in the world and how less than a second of exposure creates new worlds that last for years. I thought we were just meeting but Corky had other plans. He wanted to make sure I understood his work.

After the tour was over, I went back to my favorite image. It was a group of women dressed in white holding signs advocating for a woman. The backstory had something to do with a TV network and an Asian American anchorwoman. He walked away after his explanation to speak with someone else. Our walk around the gallery drew a crowd of worthy ear hustlers leaning on Corky’s stories so there were other inquiring minds in the space. The photo I loved so much had uniformity with undeniable individuality. It was the silhouettes of the women’s clothes. The common hairstyles yet everyone’s face was doing something entirely different. I whispered to my friend Yin who brought us together. “I think I want to buy this. It’s gorgeous.” She replied, “Isn’t he great. We really need to archive this guy. He knows so much and it’s all in his head.”

Wednesday January 27th 2021

When I received a text message from Yin that Corky had passed, loosing a battle against covid like over half a million other people in the US, I sunk into my couch. I wanted to cry but the pain felt as emotional as spiritual so the tears didn’t come. We just met and I felt so sad yet so honored to have met him and to have archived him in one way.

Part of Corky’s legacy is our film Grand Rising. Corky made a donation to ThinkChinatown that gave them our budget to complete the commission for Chinatown Arts Week 2020. It’s a fashion story starring our BGX family Charles Johnson who was model and stylist playing the role of Domingo Anthony, one of the first Black landowners of New Netherland circa July 13th 1643. Domingo and Catalina Anthony both received their land grants the same day and their parcels of land were adjacent and would have been in today’s Chinatown. In the film, Domingo, played by Charles, appears as a ghost moving through the territory that would have been his farm noticing what has and has not changed. When we were filming I told Corky that I wanted Domingo to walk by him while he was on the corner showcasing his photography. Corky understood the connection immediately and suggested, “Let’s do that shot again but this time, he should give me a pound.” We all laughed and reshot it, which is the final scene of the film. When it screened on Mulberry Street Friday October 23rd 2020, there was a cheer for that moment. Corky’s voice and presence was there – audible and resonant. I gave him a pound and said, “That was your idea, bro.”

Domingo Anthony’s time walking the streets of Manhattan have passed centuries ago but his spirit is felt in Chinatown today, just like Corky whose presence will also be felt for centuries to come. At the end of the day or a life – our connection to each other and spirit is the key to living and it is the motivation of great visual storytellers like Corky. Rest in power, my friend.