Index of Memorial Resolutions and Biographical Sketches
Russell Lee, retired lecturer in art and renowned documentary photographer of the Great Depression, died on August 28, 1986. He was 83.
Professor Lee was born on July 21, 1903, in Ottawa, Illinois. He received a bachelor's degree from Lehigh University in 1925. He worked as a chemical engineer and studied at the Art Students League in New York and the California School of Fine Arts.
Professor Lee purchased a camera in 1935, and embarked on a distinguished career as a photographer of America in the Great Depression and early 1940s. Working with the Farm Security Administration, Professor Lee became the most prolific of the agency's photography team. His trademark was the direct flash, which allowed him to make detailed and candid photographs of his subjects. His photographs of Depression era America, rural Texas, and Chicago black slum dwellers have been judged works of great art as well as compelling social documents.
During World War II Professor Lee flew more than a million miles as a photographer with the Air Transport Command, photographing all the airfield approaches used by the ATC. He earned the Air Medal for his contributions.
Following the war, Professor Lee moved to Austin, Texas, and undertook an extensive photography project for the United States Department of the Interior, documenting the coal mining regions of the country. He made more than 4,000 photographs that depicted the conditions under which miners lived and worked. Professor Lee documented the lives of Spanish-speaking people as well as an array of political and social situations throughout Texas. He also taught at the University of Missouri, helping to establish that institution's well regarded photojournalism program.
In 1960 Professor Lee carried out a photography project in Italy at the urging of William Arrowsmith, professor of classics at The University of Texas at Austin. A small portion of the resulting 4,000 images he made appeared in Professor Arrowsmith's book The Image of Italy. Subsequently, Professor Lee was invited to present a solo exhibition in the University's art department in 1965, and to teach photography and establish the department's photography program. He taught from 1965 until his retirement in 1973.
Professor Lee's Depression era photographs for the Farm Security Administration are housed in the Library of Congress. Other works are in the collections of the National Archives, the Museum of Modern Art, the International Museum of Photography, and elsewhere. Shortly before his death in 1986, he donated his personal archive of 15,000 negatives, prints, and slides to the Barker Texas History Center. These materials cover his career after 1946.
Professor Lee's photographic approach was tinged with a uniquely "sympathetic spirit," thus enabling him to capture his subjects' lives vividly. His work is universally regarded as an extraordinary achievement.
John R. Durbin, Secretary
The General Faculty
Biographical sketch prepared by Teresa Palomo Acosta and posted on the Faculty Council web site on December 20, 2000. Additional biographical sources can be found in the Barker Texas History Center, the UT Office of Public Affairs, and the New Handbook of Texas, Texas State Historical Association, 1996.