Looking Back - Russell Lee

I have always been fascinated by the body of work created by the photographers working for Roy Stryker, the director of photography project at the FSA (Farm Security Administration) during the American Depression years, especially since they have had a profound influence upon my own photographic vision; and while Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans are names more recognizable then Arthur Rothstein, or that of Russell Lee, today’s Looking Back post focuses upon Russell Lee.

Young migratory couple living at the Agua Fria Migratory Labor Camp, Arizona, 1940

Russell was born in July of  1903 and grew up in Ottawa, Illinois., he received a degree in Chemical Engineering from Lehigh University. He had an excellent position as a chemist, but after marrying Doris Emrick in 1927, he gave up his position to become a painter just as his wife. Shortly later the two moved  to a small artist’s community in Woodstoock, New York.

Struggling with his art, Russell turned to photography, only to become interested in photography for its own sake, focusing on the struggling working class and the lives they lead. In 1936 he became interested in a group of Washington, DC’s photographer doing social documentary work. Shortly later he met Stryker, who shortly thereafter hired Russell to develop a collection of propaganda to document the success of federal rural relief project.

Mother of FSA client, Southeast Missouri Farms, 1938

Russell was covering the Midwest for the FSA, visually recording the struggles of the farmers struggling through the Great Depression and the droughts of the 1930s. It was during this time that his marriage to Doris Emrick ended and he married Jean Smith, whom he met and married in 1938. The two worked as a team, with Jean writing short essays to accompany his photographic images.

By 1940, Russell was well established and known as one of the best FSA photographers.

Lee created some very iconic images of his own for the FSA, but also left us with his photographic studies of Augustine, Texas and that of Pie Town, New Mexico a year later in 1940.

Negro family with supplies in wagon ready to leave for the farm, 
Saturday afternoon, San Augustine, Texas, 1939

His work is very different from Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans, even though their subject matter was the same. Russell approached his subjects differently, in part to put a more positive spin on the situation, where people engage with each other, appear relatively happy, but then was it also the propaganda that he needed to accomplish for the FSA. 

Regardless of the situation, Russell’s images of individuals, convey a sense of dignity, regardless of their lot in life. Yes, most of their faces reflect an uneasy hope, but hope never-the-less. Then there are the faces of despair, and even here his photographs treat these individuals with humanity and not exploitive, as we have seen with Migrant Mother. Also many of his photographs do not have a cold clinical documentary appearance, appearing more like family album snapshots.  

You can learn more about Russell Lee by visiting Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas, by clicking on the following two links: Introduction to Russell Lee and Russell Lee Exhibit, as a good portion of his work is housed there. Also there is an article about the Humanities Texas exhibition in 2008 of Russell Lee.

Wife of carpenter and her baby who live in community camp, 
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1939

Husband and wife sitting on settee encamped by the roadside, 
Wagoner County, Oklahoma, 1939

Veteran migrant worker and his wife camped in Wagoner County, Oklahoma, 1939

Group of Negro cotton pickers resting during lunch hour, Lehi, Arkansas, 1938

Southeast Missouri Farms. FSA clients preparing greens for canning, 1938

Children of Alonzo Heath, farmer near Black River Falls, Wisconsin, 1937

Daughters of wage laborer working in the sugarcane fields near New Iberia,
Louisiana, 1938

Children of FSA client, former sharecropper, Southeast Missouri Farms, 1938

Indian children in camp near Little Fork, Minnesota, 1937

FSA clients near Carutherville, Missouri, 1938

Audience listening to orchestra playing outside grocery store on Saturday afternoon, 
Phoenix, Arizona, 1940

Heaping the plates at dinner on the grounds, all day community sing. 
Pie Town, New Mexico, 1940

Eating dinner at the all day community sing, Pie Town, New Mexico, 1940

Gernie Marshall and family, near Ringgold, Iowa, 1937

Family of FSA client, former sharecropper, on porch of old shack home, 
New Madrid County, Missouri, 1938

Family of Glen Cook, who rents his farm from a loan company, 
Woodbury County, Iowa, 1936

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