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Appreciating Russell Lee
Photographers, like actors, can be typecast. When you are the go-to person for a particular kind of job, it's an advantage. When you can't get the out-of-type assignments you'd like to increase your income and demonstrate your scope, it's a curse. The same thinking applies to the history of photography where even the greatest photographers are too often known for a particular style or subject, ignoring the broader range of their accomplishments. A few best hits oft repeated become our signature memory of their careers.
Photo history has typecast Russell Lee as a documentary photographer who photographed American life in the 1930s during the hard times of the Great Depression. That work was done for the Farm Security Agency (FSA), a federal agency to help displaced farmers that also documented them and other Americans as part of its mission. Working for the FSA earned Lee his place in the pantheon of photographers to respect and remember. However, typecasting, a self-effacing nature and limited distribution of his later work have resulted in a general failure to fully appreciate Lee's accomplishments, an array of visual insights that extend far beyond his work for the FSA.
Lee and his wife Jean, who traveled with him for many of his projects, donated his personal collection of negatives and associated files to The Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. The original materials for everything but his work for the government, some commercial work, and his color photography are included. There it has joined a growing photographic collection that documents American life and history. In 2005 the University of Texas Press asked CAH photo archivist and curator Linda Peterson to submit a proposal for a Russell Lee book project. The proposal was approved and Linda engaged the great curator and historian John Szarkowski to write the preface and me to write the introduction. Linda kept the plum job of selecting and arranging the photographs for herself with a lot of input from me, Roy Flukinger, and Dr. Don Carleton, the Center's director. This was a heartfelt project for me. Many Friday afternoons I had joined a group that drank Scotch and enjoyed Central Texas barbecue with Russ. I used his personal copy slides to teach about his work in my history of photography classes. In his last year Dr. Julianne Newton and I helped him review his files and determine their disposition. In his last hours I had a final conversion with this great photographer who was optimistic and forward-looking to the end.
Chronologically, the CAH Lee archive begins with nearly 40 35mm rolls of his earliest work from 1935-36, before he joined the FSA. He approached a far greater range of subjects than the famous sad street scenes of out-of-work men in New York City where he spent winters, and the desperate auctions of household goods in the Woodstock artist's colony where he lived in milder weather. His Contax I camera pointed to upscale life as well as the unfortunate. He managed interiors as well as exteriors despite the limits of slow film and no flash synch. The themes he continued to explore throughout his photographic life were established early including political life, street scenes, shopping, portraiture, personal and public spaces.
Lee's omnivorous vision was supported by profound advantages for someone becoming a photographer. He was trained as a chemical engineer and from the beginning worked 35mm processes beyond their normal limits. His first wife, Doris Emerick, was a painter and Lee quit work as a young man to join her immersion in art. It was his frustration with painting that drove him to take up the camera in hopes of getting more "life" in his portraiture. When Doris' success as an artist and his as a photographer on the road led to parting, he later married Jean, a journalist who wrote his captions and field notes. A family trust provided a limited but adequate income beyond the modest pay most of his photography afforded. These resources were integrated by a man of uncommon charm and great personal discipline. Charm he learned, perhaps, while coping with an unfortunate childhood (his parents were divorced, his mother killed by an automobile as he watched at age 10, his relatives unhappy to care for a child). Intense private schooling (Culver Military Academy) reinforced his sense of discipline. Although he was a self-confident, physically strong and handsome six-footer, Russell Lee made you feel comfortable and glad to be with him. He had one of the most important assets for a photojournalist or documentary photographer: a talent for relating to strangers.
After the FSA there was WWII in which he served as a Captain photographing for the Air Transport Command. After the war there was a national crisis with the mining industry resulting in a book-length government report extensively illustrated with Lee's photography. In 1947, exhausted and ill, Lee retired to Austin with Jean to take up fishing, his personal recourse to recreation. He was soon involved in photographing for a variety of political and social causes, many of them driven by Jean's active political life. Occasionally he did a media or commercial assignment, but he was not driven by ego or financial need to pursue a photographic career.
He did reconnect with Roy Stryker, for whom he had worked at the FSA. Stryker was now working with Standard Oil creating an industrially motivated documentary project. This led Lee to commercial projects for oil and steel companies, travel to Saudi Arabia and Europe, and some of his finest large-format photography.
Two projects of special interest in the CAH collection are photography for the Study of Spanish-Speaking People in Texas (1949), and for a special issue of a University publication, Texas Quarterly, titled Image of Italy. He traveled through the country in the summer of 1960, from Sicily to the Dolomites, to provide over 150 illustrations. He was at the height of his photographic power. Italy was ripe with photographic potential. Scholar William Arrowsmith, who edited the volume of writing and photography, noted in his foreword that, "In a half hour's drive out of almost any city in Italy you can pass through three or four successive centuries, all of them simultaneously alive…" Both the Study of the Spanish-Speaking People and Image of Italy files provide a rich treasure of little-known photography.
Even a brief discussion of Lee would be incomplete without mention of his contributions as a teacher. In the early years of the Missouri Workshop, where so many fine photographers have either taught or improved their documentary skills, Russ and Jean were co-directors. They were credited by noted educator Cliff Edom, founder of the workshop as well as the first university program in photojournalism, with helping to shape the workshop. Later Lee taught photography in the Art Department at the University of Texas. His charge there was limited to helping visual artists "see" more effectively, but some of his students became successful photographers.
The full measure of Lee's photography is hard to take in because it does not depend on a singular subject or approach. Stylistically it is both varied and transparent. Transparent in that it does not call attention to itself, but has you looking directly at what's in the frame. Varied in that it ranges from complex, precise compositions using a view camera to some of photography's most decisive candid moments. His camera moved from exquisitely detailed object studies to broad landscapes. From portraiture and people in action to intimate moments. The moods range from dark and profoundly sad to brightly comic. It is work that is easier to appreciate with seeing than with explanation. Lee's great empathy with the human condition shows throughout it all.
Lee was an active photographer for more than three decades after the FSA. There has been one significant survey of his career (F. Jack Hurley, 1978), long out of print. Linda Peterson and I are grateful for the opportunity that the Center for American History and its supporters have provided to offer a broad selection of Lee's personal files in Russell Lee Photographs, all of it beyond the FSA, much of it not known to the viewing public.
For more about The Center for American History go to: http://www.cah.utexas.edu/.
Information about their Photography Collections is at:
The complete series of negatives Lee shot on assignment for the Study of the Spanish-Speaking People of Texas is at: http://www.cah.utexas.edu/ssspot/.
More about Russell Lee Photographs is available at the University of Texas Press: http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/.
© J.B. Colson
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