Lee made his magnum opus over the course of six years. Then, in the mid-’90s, he stopped making movies altogether. Outside of teaching, he hasn’t picked up a camera since. In our age of fervent careerism and content creation, this almost seems like a form of insanity. Lee told me that his decision was guided, in part, by a pet theory that most artists did his best work over a period of about seven years, then slowly tapered off for the rest of their careers. Lee reasoned that by resigning while he was ahead, he spared himself the inevitable indignity. But the work also weighed on him. He was the stress of the road, the long stretches away from home and from his wife, whom he had met while teaching at the Massachusetts College of Art in the early 1980s. But there was also a sense that, however justly he intended, however sensitive the photographs of him, there was an unbridgeable gap between him and his models. He would spend the day photographing people living in seemingly inescapable poverty and then return, at night, to a hotel. “You know, hot shower and food,” he said. “The incongruity of that was just hard to do.” He recalled that once a couple took him off the street to take a photo at a wake of his son, who had died after falling out of bed and getting tangled up in the sheets. They had not been able to pay for a crib. Earlier the same week, Lee and his wife had been shopping for cribs for his first child, who was born in 1988, and lamenting that the older ones they coveted didn’t meet accepted safety standards.
One final moment came when Lee was driving in rural Georgia and noticed a one-armed man clumsily pushing a lawn mower. Lee stopped his car to take the photo. “There’s a lot to be said for ambition that’s good,” he said. “But then it can also blind you. She was so excited to take that photo. Then I thought about it for a second, as he got out of the car. I stopped. I slid into the seat, closed the door, and turned around. I drove home. I drove the five hundred miles to get home, because I was so ashamed of myself.” Walker Evans famously exhorted those who would follow in his footsteps: “Look, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Know something.” But, ever the aloof Patrician, Evans seemed unbothered by what he was looking at. Lee went in search of the injustices at the center of American life. He found beauty but also horror. Finally, he decided to look away.