A Mutual Respect
The photographs of Russell Lee reveal an exceptional trust on both sides of the lens
By Rebecca S. Cohen, Fri., Aug. 29, 2003
I wish I had known Russell Lee in the Sixties, when he taught photography at the University of Texas at Austin, or afterward, when Garry Winogrand took over for him, leaving the older man more time to gather with friends for a round or two of drinks and conversation. Sadly, Lee and I never met, but by all accounts, if I'd had the good fortune to visit the West Avenue home he shared with his wife Jean, he would have looked at me with those friendly eyes, flashed a smile, and welcomed me inside as he had so many others. Prior to seeing "Russell Lee: A Centenary Exhibition," currently at the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern & Mexican Photography in San Marcos, I couldn't have identified specific images that he produced, but I was certainly aware of Lee's name and reputation, as both a photographer and a mentor for younger artists.
Russell Lee belonged to that extraordinary team of photographers that traversed the United States during the 1930s and early 1940s taking pictures for the Farm Security Administration. Working under the guidance of FSA Historical Section Director Roy Stryker, Lee, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Carl Mydans, and Arthur Rothstein, among others, documented the desperation and subsequent recovery of America from the travails of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era. With the financial support of the government -- Lee was paid $2,600 per year with a $5 per diem -- and the help of Stryker, who circulated their work to the widest possible audience, they tweaked the conscience of the country and later provided proof that it was on the rebound. Indeed, the images they captured were so vivid that they fashioned our collective visual memory of that period in history, argues Mary Jane Appel in her catalog essay for the Wittliff Gallery exhibition. Despite the photographs' origins as propaganda -- "Put on the syrup and white clouds, and play on the sentiment," wrote Stryker to Lee -- many of them eventually made their way into museums and galleries, where people classified them as "art." But not Russell Lee. "He didn't consider prints should be precious objects," says Steve Clark, director of Stephen L. Clark Gallery and an acquaintance of Lee's. "His interest wasn't making a great picture," says screenwriter and photography collector Bill Wittliff. "It was the plight of these people."
Perhaps Lee's empathy for others stemmed from his own life experience. In 1913, when he was 10 years old, Lee watched as a car struck his mother on a rain-soaked street in Ottawa, Ill., where they lived. She died shortly thereafter, leaving the boy's grandparents to care for him and providing a substantial inheritance for his future. A number of different guardians wound up watching over the lad until he came of age, among them his great-uncle Milton Pope, who not only invested and added to his nephew's inheritance, securing the young man's financial future for life, but who seems to have been this mentor's mentor. Appel suggests that it was this reportedly jovial relation, possessed of "sterling qualities of character," who taught Lee by example not to flaunt his good fortune. Even today, the accomplished photographer's humility is legendary.
Lee came to his vocation in a somewhat circuitous manner. He worked first in chemical engineering, his field of study in college. Then, in 1927, two years after he married his first wife Doris, he resigned his position with a company that made composition roofing and took up painting. While he was a reasonably adept draftsman -- as can be seen in his last canvas, on display in the Wittliff Gallery -- Lee laid down his brushes forever after he bought his first camera (a 35 mm Contax, also on display) at the suggestion of his artist-friend Ben Shahn. Lee's background in science gave him a leg up in mixing developing chemicals, which enhanced his negatives and informed his shooting strategies as well; he took comprehensive notes over time with the camera, creating a series of images of each subject rather than attempting to distill the one artful pose. It was as if he were dissecting the scene so as to explain each detail.
Lee's first photographs documented the area around Woodstock, N.Y., where he and Doris spent summers in the Woodstock Art Colony, and New York City during the winter of 1935-1936. From the beginning, his pictures depicted the downtrodden: people forced to sell their possessions at auction and those in unemployment lines. In Pennsylvania, he photographed bootleg coal mines. During this time he acquired an agent and began shooting for publications such as Collier's and American Magazine. In 1936, mining photographs in hand, he met with Roy Stryker, who gave him a temporary assignment documenting a homestead housing project in New Jersey. Stryker liked the results so much that he brought Lee onto the FSA project full time, launching the photographer on one of the most productive and significant periods of his career.
Lee spent the next six years traveling back and forth across the country to record everything from oil towns in Texas to tenements in the Bronx, lumber towns in the Pacific Northwest to the homesteading community of Pie Town, N.M., where he produced some of his most well-known images. From 1939 onward, he was accompanied on these trips by his second wife, Dallas journalist Jean Smith, who employed her skills as a reporter to interview his photographic subjects, write captions for the pictures, and keep field notes which were used to identify the negatives of his pictures as they were developed. (At first, Lee developed film himself on the road, but after a tainted batch of developer compromised some of his negatives, he sent the film to Washington for processing and the proofing.)
Lee became not only one of the agency's most well-traveled and prolific photographers but one of its most innovative as well. His use of a multiple flash enabled Lee to depart from the exterior shots common to the photos of that period and to move inside, capturing the essence of whole rooms -- and their inhabitants' lives -- in exquisite detail. In one of his signature images, that of a couple listening to the radio in Hidalgo County, Texas, in 1939, he is able to render the pattern of the woman's hairnet, the lace curtains, the texture of the tapestry hanging over the console radio, and the man's tattered socks with equal clarity. Every bit of information matters.
But perhaps Lee's most amazing accomplishment was his ability to repeatedly insert himself into new locales, to discern the times and places which would confer maximum information about that place, and then to gain acceptance of the community so that he could be present with his camera. People trusted Russell Lee. As Bill Wittliff puts it, his subjects came to feel, "I don't think this guy will lie about me."
Ave Bonar, another photographer who considers Lee a mentor, explains it this way: "He gave me an appreciation for respecting people when photographing them." And Lee's subjects respected him in return. With rare exceptions, the working folks Lee photographed do not stare warily back at his camera. Instead, the viewer stands undisturbed behind the saloon bar in Craigville, Minn., as patrons swill their beer. (The comfortable ambience of this particular photo attracted the attention of Cheers producers, who used it -- without attribution to Lee -- every week in the opening sequence of the popular TV show.) In another of his better-known photos, a sharecropper's boy combs his hair in front of a cracked mirror in Muskogee, Okla., giving no apparent thought to who might be looking over his shoulder. Lee presented himself to these strangers as an old acquaintance who had come to sit a spell and visit, which is to say that he and his camera were quickly taken for granted. "You always feel like he's one of the subjects in his pictures," says Wittliff.
The World War II years saw the FSA project shifted to the Office of War Information, and not long after that Lee joined the Overseas Technical Unit of the Air Transport Command, where he logged a million miles photographing the routes and airfields flown by the ATC. After the war, he returned to the coal mines to document health and safety conditions for the Department of the Interior, a project for which he shot more than 4,000 images over seven months. In 1947, Russell and Jean Lee settled in Austin, where Russell continued his social documentary work -- recording everything from the lives of Spanish-speaking Texans to conditions at state mental institutions -- while taking assignments from corporations such as Standard Oil, Aramco, and Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp.
In 1965, following a retrospective exhibition of his work, Russell Lee was hired as the first instructor of photography in the art department at UT. The change led Russ, as his friends routinely call him, to slow the rigorous pace of his own picture-taking and concentrate instead on encouraging others, finding positive things to say about their work. He did that for nine years, but even after retiring from the faculty in 1973, Russell Lee kept nurturing those around him. "Just by being there, he inspired," says Bill Wittliff who, along with a string of other now-famous Austin practitioners in the arts -- Ave Bonar, Jimmy Jalapeeno, Jim Bones, Rick Williams -- considers the photographer an important influence. They compare him to John Graves.
Lee also liked to fly-fish and to "sneak-buy" fishing equipment, according to Wittliff who, when he was helping Jean clean out the studio after her husband's death, discovered a closet full of new and barely touched rods and lures. In fact, to hear his friends tell it, buying and hoarding fishing equipment was the man's only vice, his passion for people his greatest virtue.
His photographs artfully testify to Lee's greatest achievement, which was the caring example he set by welcoming others into his life and by quietly and sympathetically inserting himself into the lives of others. To sit in his presence -- whether eating barbecue, fly-fishing, or talking about photography -- was the best way to experience the complete range of his talent. The current exhibition goes a long way toward re-creating that experience.
On Sept. 18, from 7 to 9pm, the Wittliff Gallery will host a public reception during which photographer Alan Pogue will present a slide show and talk about Russell Lee's influence on his own documentary work. Ann Mundy's video, which runs continuously in the gallery, and assorted memorabilia in display cases provide additional insight into the photographer's life and times. The exhibition catalog, The Man Who Made America's Portrait: Russell Werner Lee, 1903-1986, with an essay by Appel, a foreword by Todd, and more than 30 photographs, concentrates on Lee's FSA years.
"Russell Lee: A Centenary Exhibition" runs through Oct. 12 at the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern & Mexican Photography, Alkek Library on the Texas State University campus, San Marcos. For more information, call 512/245-2313 or visit www.library.swt.edu/swwc/wg/exhibits/ default.html.