When taking photographs during the Great Depression, Russell Lee liked to get real with his subjects.
Russell Lee photographing a school session in San Donato, Italy, 1960.
“You’re having a tough time here,” he would say to a farm family, “and the rest of the country needs to see pictures of it so that they can appreciate what you’re going through.”
His candor encouraged strangers to let him into their lives, during the Depression and across his nearly 50-year career. Whether his subjects were unemployed men in New York City or young lovers in Italy, Lee photographed people as they were, engaged in the activities of their daily lives.
Lee believed his primary responsibility was to document the truth, and his success in fulfilling that intention makes the archive of his work an essential collection at the Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin.
“We believe in documentary photography as great historical evidence,” says Dr. Don Carleton, director of the Center for American History. “Lee went to places and saw things that social historians in particular are interested in. He presented evidence of the conditions at the time he took the photographs.”
In 1986, shortly before his death, Lee met with Carleton and gave the center his personal negative and print collection, including more than 27,000 negatives, 3,600 prints and 700 slides. (Lee also gave the university’s Harry Ransom Center 800 photographic prints.) His intention was that his work not end up in boxes in a basement somewhere, but rather be put in use and accessible to the public.
Lee’s archive is open to all at the Center for American History, and with the recent publication of “Russell Lee Photographs,” published in March by UT Press, and an exhibition of his work at Flatbed Press in East Austin, Lee is very much in the public eye.
In addition, Linda Peterson, head of photographic and digital archives at the center and editor of “Russell Lee Photographs,” has led a team in creating a comprehensive Web site for middle school teachers and students of Lee’s series “Study of the Spanish-Speaking People of Texas.”
“The archive is available,” Peterson says, “and we view the Web site as an invitation for people to come and share with us this wonderful work.”
Lee is best known as one of several photographers who worked under Roy Stryker in the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Depression. With the goal to “introduce America to Americans,” the FSA hired photographers to document the plight of the rural poor.
The images taken through the project were the most seen photographs in history during their time and remain some of the most famous documentary photographs ever taken.
Lee was the most prolific of the FSA photographers, who included Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, and he created some of FSA’s most iconic images.
Photographing sugarcane farmers, pear pickers and oyster fishermen for the FSA took Lee across the country and honed his skills as a documentary photographer. But Peterson says Lee, who forsook careers in engineering and art to focus on photography, was always interested in how images could promote social justice.
“The work we have from 1935 and 1936 prior to his employment with the FSA contains the same elements of documentary and capturing the human condition with great compassion and great skill,” Peterson says. “So he was a perfect fit for the FSA.”
|Russell Lee, Teacher
Lee and his wife Jean moved to Austin in 1947, but it wasn’t until 1965 that Lee entered the classroom at The University of Texas at Austin. He became the university’s first photography professor and taught until he retired in 1973.
“Even a brief discussion of Lee would be incomplete without mention of his contributions as a teacher,” writes J.B. Colson, professor emeritus in the School of Journalism, in his article “Appreciating Russell Lee.”
Lee also co-directed the Missouri Photo Workshop, a weeklong experiential training that to this day brings together the best photojournalists and documentary photographers. In those classes and at the university, his teaching was marked by the joy and personal warmth he brought to the work, even when offering criticism.
At the university, where he taught in the Art Department, his mission was unusual.
“The point was not to produce photographers,” Colson says, “but to train art students to see more carefully.”
Even so, some of his students became successful photographers, turning, as Lee himself did, from a career in studio art to a career behind the lens. Working with young artists and photographers helped secure Lee’s legacy of ethically and respectfully documenting people’s lives.
“I’ve always told students you must be honest with the camera,” Russell Lee told his biographer F. Jack Hurley.
And he carried on that type of work after completing his work with the organization.
One of the most important of those projects was the “Study of the Spanish-Speaking People of Texas,” a series of more than 900 images taken between April and July 1949 in Corpus Christi, San Angelo, San Antonio and El Paso. Commissioned by a professor at The University of Texas at Austin and directed by sociologist Lyle Saunders, the project aimed to create a visual record of the life of Spanish-speaking people in Texas to educate public officials, bureaucrats and the public about this expanding population.
In a letter to Lee, Saunders expressed his conviction that “a good set of pictures would do far more than any number of words in conveying the realities of the social and economic situation of Spanish-speaking Texans.”
The photographs do just that, and Lee’s extensive field notes act as a guide for the viewer. For many people, Lee’s photographs offered a first glimpse into the lives of the Mexican-American community as they worked and lived. He gives as much attention to the exuberance of children in a public pool as to the broken steps to a ramshackle home.
“Lee found occasions to photograph suffering and social injustice while at the same time paying tribute to the dignity of the human spirit,” Peterson says, “and the small pleasures and kindnesses that bring joy to individuals and communities.”
Lee’s work and those of his colleagues at the FSA form the basis for what today is known as photojournalism. Their legacy can be found in every photo of a man on a roof after Hurricane Katrina or children in a refugee camp outside Liberia, and anywhere photographs are being used to document our world and make us see where change needs to happen.
As for Lee’s work itself, Peterson says that even after spending two years going through each of more than 27,000 negatives at the Center for American History, she’s still amazed at the power of his images. As she chose what to include in the “Russell Lee Photographs” book, her admiration for the man and his work only grew.
“His essential compassion for the human condition shines forth in every image,” Peterson says.