The first book to show the full range and quality of Russell Lee’s work, as well as the first major publication of his photographs since 1978--contains over 140 images, 101 of which have never appeared in book publication.
Series: Focus on American History
Russell Lee is widely acclaimed as one of the most outstanding documentary photographers of the twentieth century. His images of American life during the Great Depression, created for the Farm Security Administration between 1936 and 1942, hold a preeminent place in one of history's best-known and most useful photographic collections. This famous body of work demonstrates Lee's extraordinary ability to reveal the humanity of his subjects and to become a part of the communities he photographed. It also displays Lee's superior technical ability—his legendary skill in using a flash enabled Lee to create some of the finest candids in the history of photography.
Russell Lee Photographs is the first book to show the full range and quality of Lee's entire oeuvre beyond the FSA work, as well as the first major publication of his photographs since F. Jack Hurley's 1978 book, Russell Lee: Photographer (long out of print). The book contains over 140 images, 101 of which have never appeared in book publication. The photographs are grouped into suites of images that represent all of Lee's important, non-FSA subjects: early work from New York City and Woodstock; the Spanish-speaking people of Texas; the mentally and physically disabled; political campaigns, including the Kennedy-Johnson campaign of 1960; commercial work for chemical and other companies; a portfolio of images of Italy; and quintessential scenes of small-town life.
Setting Lee's images in context are a foreword by John Szarkowski, one of America's leading photography curators and critics, and an introduction by Lee's friend and fellow photography educator J. B. Colson, who offers fascinating personal insights into Lee's life and career.
Considering Russell Lee's stature in American photography, it is surprising that much of his post-FSA work is unknown to the public and has been seldom seen even in the photography community. By making these images readily available for the first time, this book gives long-overdue recognition to the full range and excellence of Lee's work. Russell Lee Photographs is the essential book on this major American photographer.
AAUP Book, Jacket and Journal Show:
Association of American University Presses
Jackets & Covers
- Foreword (by John Szarkowski)
- Introduction: "There was a job to do": The Photographic Career of Russell Lee (by J. B. Colson)
- The Photographs (section introductions by Linda Peterson)
Fridays with Russell Lee meant good times. We would arrive about eleven thirty and head for the large dining room table with its array of fine scotch. His wife, Jean, would sometimes join us briefly and then disappear. As we chatted in the living room, Jean's two miniature poodles would jump around on the furniture in their ribbons and freshly painted nails. Soon we headed out to eat, usually for barbecue, stopping for a six-pack on the way (beer in the car was legal then). Russ's favorite place was Mueller's in Taylor, about an hour away by Texas country roads. He liked his brisket moist, with a longneck beer. After Mueller's we'd go to a dark old bar by Taylor's railroad tracks for a sausage wrap and a beer and then to Pflugerville for more beer and conversation.
Regulars included Carl Berquist, artist, architecture professor, and raconteur; Mike Murphy, a photo director for the state; and Larry Schaaf and me, both photojournalism teachers. Sometimes there were others we knew, and occasionally a visitor come to see the famous Russell Lee. Conversations were not dominated by photography. We were just hanging out, enjoying each other's company. But sometimes in the living room Russ would demonstrate how he used his 35 mm camera. He was all over the place, exploring his subject. Or he would be quietly standing with camera held low until he saw the moment; then the camera would rise and return in what seemed to be one graceful movement, passing by his eye as he clicked. If you were the subject, you had to be looking at him at the right second to know you'd been photographed. Thus we learned how Russell Lee got some of the finest candids in the history of photography. We saw what an acute and patient observer he was, and how he could make strangers feel relaxed and open because they felt he was sincerely interested in who they were.
Before he ever used a camera seriously, Russell Lee was well prepared for a career in photography. His youth, with extremes of good and bad fortune, made him into a charismatic yet disciplined person who could charm strangers and work to exhaustion. His birthright ensured freedom from financial worry. His formal education trained him in the sciences, chemistry in particular. His immersion in the visual arts through his marriage to artist Doris Emerick refined both his aesthetic and his social sensibilities. And the Great Depression of the 1930s that devastated the national economy and so many lives was, for Lee, a great opportunity.
Just as he was finishing his personal program of basic photographic training, he was able to join the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration (later renamed the Farm Security Administration), a federal program to help the rural poor. The small group of photographers who worked there for director Roy Stryker included Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, two of the most respected names in the history of photography. Their work for the government has become one of history's best-known and most useful photographic collections. Russell Lee produced more of that work than any other photographer before going on to a long but less well-known career as photographer and teacher.
Near the end of his life, as he battled terminal cancer, Lee made careful plans for his life's work. He had invited me to review his files with him and discuss archiving them, and I had asked Dr. Julianne Newton, then also teaching photography at the University of Texas, to work with us. Lee and his wife, Jean, donated his files of negatives, contacts, prints, and associated notes, including his earliest photography and most of what he did after 1947, to the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. The images in this archive of more than 27,000 negatives and 3,500 prints, like Lee's best work for the FSA, are elegant and compelling visual insights into the human condition. Many of them are unknown to the public and have yet to receive the attention and appreciation they deserve.
Born in 1903, Russell Lee grew up with unusual benefits and unfortunate challenges. His mother was from a financially comfortable and locally prominent family in Ottawa, Illinois, a family that was not happy with her choice of husband. She divorced when Russell was five, leaving him without a father. Still, there was some stability and comfort in his young life until a rainy day in 1913, when the ten-year-old boy was waiting in a chauffeur-driven car while his mother ran across the street to do a brief errand. She was struck and killed as he watched. The orphan's care fell to an ill grandmother who died three years later. He related poorly to his grandfather and so became the legal ward of a great-uncle, who sent him to Culver Military Academy in Indiana in the fall of 1917. When the great-uncle died, the court appointed a guardian who had no interest in managing a teenager. Throughout these years Lee had no real place other than the academy. Finally a third legal guardian, a family friend, provided a home for the young man.
Though Lee did not like the military discipline of Culver, he did well academically and socially during his time there. He participated in a wide range of activities and assumed leadership roles in most of them. Well respected by his peers, he had responded to his personal losses and rejection by developing a charming personality and a disciplined character. Whatever the psychological burdens of his youth were, the mature Lee consistently projected an upbeat, positive attitude that could immediately engage most strangers as well as empathize with the misfortunes of others. A trust from his mother's family fortune provided him with a modest but adequate income, a significant advantage throughout his life.
From Culver, Lee went on to Lehigh University, graduating in 1925 with a degree in chemical engineering. While he enjoyed his studies, he was not satisfied with the career in manufacturing that they led to. In 1927 he married artist Doris Emrick, and in 1928 the couple moved to Kansas City, where he had been promoted to manage a factory and she continued her studies in painting. Doris's fine arts interests came to engage Russell more than his work did, and he took up painting in his free time. So that they could both better study painting, he quit his job and they moved to San Francisco to spend a year immersed in art and socializing with artists. His income from the trust was secure and adequate to support their modest lifestyle. From San Francisco they moved to New York, spending summers in a cabin at Woodstock, an artists' colony north of the city, and winters in the city. Their immersion in the world of art and artists continued.
The artists of Woodstock were also involved with social issues. Many were poor, and concerns with social justice ran through their discussions and their art. This was another dimension for Lee that, coupled with the visual evidence of the Great Depression around him, influenced his photography from the beginning.
His move to photography arose from a frustration with his drawing efforts. Lee was painting people, but he could not render the action and expression he saw in life. With a camera, he thought, he would be able to capture that action and use the photographs to improve his drawing. However, he soon found greater satisfaction and success with the process of photography than with painting. Lee's chemical engineering background gave him insight into the mechanics of photographic technique, his natural abilities for observing and interacting encouraged people to feel comfortable with him and his camera, and his fine arts training gave clarity and organization to his photographs. In 1935 Lee found his medium. Painting had only been a pathway to it.
In that same year painting brought national success to Doris Lee. She won the prestigious Logan Prize at the Art Institute of Chicago and a commission to do murals at the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. But Doris and Russell were headed down separate paths, and they divorced in 1939.
While Russell was on assignment in New Orleans, he met Jean Smith, who had a background in journalism. They married and she traveled with Russ on his FSA assignments, using her reporting and writing skills to help him with interviews, captions, and reports.
Nearly forty rolls of film at the Center for American History record Lee's earliest photographic efforts, shot with a Contax model I 35 mm camera. Beginning in 1925, a market for quality 35 mm cameras was established with the Leica. The Contax 35 mm camera, which became Lee's first camera, was introduced in 1932 and offered features that rivaled those of the Leica. (Early Nikon rangefinder cameras were Japanese copies of this design.) The small, quiet camera was a fine tool for photographing natural action and candids.
Still, it was not an easy tool to use. There were no automatic settings; lens and shutter speeds had to be manually set. Focusing and framing meant looking into a tiny optical finder. Experience and judgment and skill were required. The 35 mm film was slow and grainy. Synchronizing flash with the camera's shutter was not possible. But Lee wanted to photograph real life, inside, at night, as people shopped, worked, and partied. With practice he got the hang of handling the camera. His chemical experience was useful as he mastered photographic processing and improved the basic film speed available. He sometimes managed flash with the camera on a tripod, firing while the shutter was open for a relatively long time.
The variety of subject matter and mood in this early work is striking. The well-known images of unemployed men on the streets of New York and desperate auctions of household goods in Woodstock are there, but so are artists, parties, and people shopping. He photographed farmers, political speeches, diners in various eating places, even a woman getting a facial, as well as dentures being made and a dentist working on a patient. He explored the variety of effort and equipment used to make bricks. He followed the followers of spiritual phenomenon Father Divine. He pushed the limits of his photographic system, sometimes getting underexposed, unsharp frames as he mastered his medium. Lingering concerns with portraiture from his painting days are sometimes evident.
Although Lee had had more than five years of immersion in art with training as a painter, his earliest images were far more photographic than painterly in approach. What he had learned from art, and what he was to stress years later as a photography teacher, was seeing--careful observation of everything that might be your subject, but particularly of people active in their everyday lives.
The evidence of Lee's visual talent, rapport with people, and socioeconomic sensitivity in his earliest work convinced Roy Stryker to hire him for the FSA in 1936 when veteran photographer Carl Mydans left for Life magazine. Though working for the FSA was a grueling experience for any photographer, it provided a rare opportunity as well. With a constant stream of varied assignments, Lee traveled through nearly thirty states and shot tens of thousands of photographs. His photography was informed by research--some from Stryker, some from his own studies--and from what he and Jean learned in the field. The work was directed by the Historical Section's role of proving the need for government programs and then documenting their success. This purpose later evolved into the more comprehensive charge of recording the American experience.
Historically, when photographers have had long periods of support to practice their craft and a vision focused on a unified purpose, the results have had enduring value. It happened in 1850s France with the Commission on Historical Monuments, in the United States with the United States Geological Surveys of western lands after the Civil War, in 1980s Great Britain's support of documentary photography. Supporting the prominence of FSA photography is its position as government property, well cataloged and readily available from the Library of Congress to the public at modest cost without copyright. As a record of a crucial period in our country's history, the 1930s Great Depression, the FSA file has seen continuing widespread use. The work of FSA photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans is most often mentioned by critics and historians, but reproductions of Lee's images have been more frequently requested than those of any other FSA photographer.
Neither Lange nor Evans worked with flash. Lee, however, knowing that life didn't always happen outside or in good light, added a press camera with flash to his equipment. Many of his noted FSA pictures demonstrate his direct flash technique, with its telling clarity and sharp shadows. Otherwise he used 35 mm and occasionally a view camera, which required careful setup on a tripod. At the FSA Lee grew into a fully competent professional documentary photographer who could be counted on to satisfy any assignment. Beyond that, he got photographs of outstanding visual power and insight often enough to earn his place in the history of photography. In his FSA photography we typically see Lee's empathy for people who were having a hard time and his respect for them, but he could also see irony, as in "Choice Farm Land for Sale," and he could be critical, as in the picture of a fat man relaxing on a porch while his haggard wife struggles with laundry. He could also see everyday life with a touch of good-natured humor.
Lee was often asked how he persuaded so many strangers to let him and his cameras into their lives. He did this by speaking candidly to them: "You're having a tough time here and the rest of the country needs to see pictures of it so they can appreciate what you're going through." Or he might say, "You've got old pictures here of your family and that's part of your history. Pictures of what you're going through will be part of our country's history." It is also true that people were generally less suspicious then, more likely to be at home, and more likely to cooperate with government workers.
With World War II dominating American life and issues of the Great Depression fading, the FSA Historical Section (Stryker's unit and his photographers) was transferred to the Office of War Information (OWI) in 1942. In 1943 Lee left to join the Air Transport Command and began two years of grueling assignments around the world. His aerial photographs, made to show hard facts of topography to help orient pilots, are also elegant visual abstractions. On the ground he documented both military life and the local scenes around it.
After the war, as he and Jean were relaxing and readjusting to civilian life, a union crisis in the coal-mining industry grew into a threat to the national economy. Lee was called back to government service to work with a federal survey of the miners' health and living conditions. The resulting 1947 publications depend on Lee's photography to validate information that words cannot make clear. Nor could words provide the emotional impact of seeing the faces of the miners and their families, as well as how they lived. These government reports also demonstrate the power of skillful presentation of informative but not necessarily great pictures. Two well-done but routine pictures of houses, one neat and comfortable, the other decaying and inadequate, presented on the same page, or five privies with notably different degrees of sanitation, are not visual art, or even notable photography, but they dramatically make a point. Here also, as with so many of his assignments, along with the routine work that served the job, Lee produced a significant number of what his FSA colleague Dorothea Lange called "second lookers," photographs whose visual and human qualities endure beyond specific projects and time periods.
"There was a job to do," was Lee's frequent characterization of his efforts. History, he realized, would benefit from some of his work. He appreciated that and understood that some of his images were, indeed, "second lookers." Making art was not his concern.
In 1947, although Lee and Jean were settled back in Austin, his contacts and reputation led to continuing photographic assignments. Stryker was now directing documentary photography for Standard Oil of New Jersey, and he hired some of the former FSA/OWI photographers for various assignments. This exposure led Lee to other industrial assignments for oil and steel companies. He also did work for New York City-based Magnum, a cooperative photo agency noted for its famous and creative photographers.
Lee's visual sensibilities recognized intricate compositions in industrial settings that were ideally suited for capturing with a view camera, which had intricacies of its own. For Lee, managing equipment and technique came naturally. At his West Avenue home in Austin he had an outbuilding with a spacious darkroom and a comfortable office. For a two-part article about him published in 1968 he told author Janet Louise Rollins that he had thirteen cameras: the two original Contax 35 mms and "three Nikon Rangefinder cameras, two Nikon single lens reflex cameras, two Rolleiflexes, two Speed Graphics, two Graphic view cameras with assorted lenses."
Soon after the Lees moved to Austin, Jean began an ongoing involvement with Texas liberal politics. She volunteered for the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in the summer of 1947 and then went on to manage campaigns for liberal politicians. Thus fellow volunteers stuffing envelopes often surrounded the Lees' long dining room table. Russ, she thought, was wasting his talent on commercial photography, an attitude that she held until his death. While discussing with her where and how to archive his work, Dr. Newton and I had to argue strongly for not throwing out his commercial assignments and personal color work.
Yet we owe much to Jean Lee. Documentary work, she felt, was her husband's noble endeavor. It was she who helped keep the FSA negative files from being trashed. As revered as the collection is now, it is hard to imagine that at one point it was nearly destroyed, the file considered a burden to be discarded. Jean coordinated contacts in Washington, including Archibald MacLeish (who was the Librarian of Congress at the time), to maneuver the collection into the Library of Congress, and the unthinkable destruction of a national treasure was averted.
With Jean engaged in politics, Russell photographed rallies, conventions, stump speeches, and back-room deal making. Beyond the routine journalism and public relations material that these events offered, there were quintessential moments of politicking and human interaction to photograph. There was also notable history. He shot eighteen 35 mm rolls of the Kennedy and Johnson September 1960 campaign visit to Texas for the New York Times Sunday Magazine.
Some of Lee's best-known political documentation came from following Ralph Yarborough, a tireless campaigner who was running against the Texas good-ol'-boy establishment. After losing two bids for governor, Yarborough successfully campaigned for the U.S. Senate in 1957. In a 1961 letter to Lee from his Senate office, Yarborough wrote, "I know that I could not begin to compensate you for the outstanding photographic work in my behalf down through the years. I realize that this work done by you and Jean was not the sort that can be bought or paid for with money." In 1963 Yarborough sent a check "in the sum of $49.50 for the 33 photographs as ordered." Lee's independent income from his mother's family trust enabled him to choose his photographic projects, and his Texas political documentation is an enduring record of the nature of state and local politics before the era of television.
The most comprehensive single documentary project that Lee did in Texas was for a study of Spanish-speaking people. In a December 1948 letter to Lee, Lyle Saunders, codirector of the project, wrote, "I feel 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 the Spanish-speaking Texans." Lee's reputation as a documentary photographer, his residency in central Texas, and the fact that he had documented Spanish-speaking Texans for the FSA in 1939 recommended him. In February 1948 Saunders and Dr. George Sanchez, professor of Latin American Studies and later chair of the Department of History and Philosophy of Education (1951-1959) at the University of Texas, began a two-year study with grants from the university and from the General Education Board of New York. Their well-organized plan included having twenty specialists paid five hundred dollars each to contribute to the study. Lee signed on as one of these experts and approached the project much as he had the work for the U.S. Coal Mines Administration. He concentrated on four Texas cities: Corpus Christi, San Angelo, San Antonio, and El Paso, in that order, from April to August of 1949. He also provided extensive field notes for his photographs, some of them paragraphs of information such as a cultural anthropologist would gather. For example, the note for plate 1.13 says:
Looking down a street in a new addition outside the city limits of San Anglo [sic], Texas. Frank Farias, real estate agent who is handling this addition for A. Turner, owner, said that many of the people were moving out here from the crowded and low north side of town because it was "better for the children," "more space and clean." Some were also moving into San Angelo from the nearby small towns and rural areas... Lots in the addition sell for from $200 to $360.
Although Lee spent less time on this project and produced fewer pictures than for the Mines Administration, here too he offered a broad selection of basic documents and some compelling images that are among his best work. None of this, unfortunately, was given the well-designed presentation it deserved. Information gathered during the study was communicated through text and tables in various pamphlets and conference reports, but never in one comprehensive publication. Codirectors Saunders and Sanchez missed the opportunity to have the kind of visual credibility and emotional appeal that had been created through the use of photographs by the Mines Administration
Lee's last major photographic project fared somewhat better. The summer 1961 issue of the Texas Quarterly, titled Image of Italy, published more than 150 of his photographs, taken during the summer of 1960. Equally important to the number of images in this collection is the layout, which allowed for sequences and groups on pages measuring almost ten by seven inches. Three thematic uncaptioned portfolios titled "Men and Women," "Love," and "Work" and four captioned sections make up most of the presentation. William Arrowsmith, the editor of this special issue, wrote in his foreword, "To match the variety and range of [written] contributions, the photographer Russell Lee travelled through Italy from Sicily to the Dolomites, reporting it with the passion of a skilled and foreign eye. His photographs are intended to form an integral part of the text."
In a letter to UT administrator Harry Ransom, Arrowsmith requested "that Russ and I be permitted to block out and dummy the issue. We've planned it with care, photograph against photograph, essay supported and contrasted with photographs etc., and I should be sorry to lose our labors." Presumably the request was granted, since the layout displays the images well. The printing, though, while carefully done given the limitations of the ink, paper, and photomechanical process used, does not do justice to the photography. The result loses much of the highlight and shadow detail that is evident in Lee's handmade prints and begs for a more deserving presentation.
In a detailed letter to Ransom about the soon-to-be-published Image of Italy, Arrowsmith conveyed his enthusiasm for Lee's photography.
We've been exceptionally fortunate, so fortunate indeed that for a while I was half tempted to chuck the literary contents of the issue altogether and bring out an album of photographs... The quality is extraordinary in my opinion. In fact, I had not expected anything like it. I thought Lee was good but I didn't know how good.
Arrowsmith may have thought well of Lee's work, but, oddly, not well enough to include him with the thirty writers credited in "Notes on the Contributors to this Issue." Lack of proper credit and pay for photographers short of elite status in their own time has been a sad truth throughout the history of photography. Lee's pay for his two and a half months of traveling through Italy and all the notes and prints he submitted was $1,500. Again his private income made his photographic accomplishments possible.
Taken as a whole, Image of Italy is a worthy example of enriching a literary text with superb photography that is not bound to the writing as illustration, a concept that has a small but notable history. Perhaps the best-known example is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with text by James Agee and photography by Walker Evans. A publishing failure in its first edition, it is now a widely sold classic. During a week with Evans at the University of Texas, I frequently asked him to comment on photography-text relationships and got no definitive answer. Finally, in a public symposium, Evans pointed to Alvin Langdon Coburn's photography for The Golden Bowl by Henry James as a model. Evans believed in what James wrote in his preface. After considerable discussion James stated his main point clearly: "Photography... should exactly be NOT competitive and obvious, should on the contrary plead its case with some shyness, that of images always confessing themselves mere optical symbols or echoes, expression of no particular thing in the text, but only of the type or idea of this or that thing." Like Evans and Coburn, Lee produced images with their own intrinsic value that complement but do not mimic their written context.
Arrowsmith wrote at length in the foreword to the Texas Quarterly special issue about the difficulty of capturing an image of 1960 Italy, referring to his challenge of assembling writing for that purpose. "Italy, in her staggering diversity of people and landscape, magnificence and misery, spectacular happiness and continual tragedy--is directly unimaginable." While a summing up of the totality of Italy in words may have been undoable, the combination of a highly diverse society ("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 and even competitive") and a very public life offered great photographic opportunity. Lee, then at the height of his photographic power, shot elegant landscapes/cityscapes--some characteristic of centuries-old villages and towns, some crowded with modern (for 1960) structures, vehicles, and activity, and some contrasting both in the same frame. Throughout Italy he photographed its people, as portraits, as on-the-spot interactions, as candids that rival the best street photography in the history of the medium.
Typically, Lee is considered to be a documentary photographer, a category that, since his death, has accumulated considerable discussion, much of it negative, regarding the validity and merits of trying to record social information. Between the extremes of seeing such work as inarguable visual truths and completely disavowing its worth is the reality that "documentary" photography can function in diverse ways with real effects. For example, Lee's work with the Air Transport Command helped military pilots plan routes and land safely at airports around the world, while his photography for the Coal Mines Administration publications provided background for resolving a national crisis.
The basic style of classic documentary is commonly known as straight photography, a mode that deceptively seems realistic yet allows the photographer to interpret scenes so that we apparently are looking at life directly. It allows us to study a scene that we might otherwise never notice or have the chance to see for ourselves. It gives us the chance to stare at people and social situations as we would rarely do if we were actually present, granting us a special kind of opportunity to study, wonder, discover, and enjoy. Lee's up-close candids are notable for capturing images of the fleeting expressions of people and their interactions. Throughout his work, Lee stuck with "straight" shooting, avoiding any effort to experiment with visual styles or to be arty. "Photography," he said, "means the responsibility to express accurately and honestly those things that are a part of life."
The value and reputation of documentary photography are positioned on a canvas of time and location. Some photographs are good for a day in a specific locale; some, like the best-known FSA images, function broadly over time and place as history and visual icons for a profound socioeconomic situation. Some transcend their time and subject to take on intrinsic value. Like literature, documentary can take us into other lives and other times and thereby, we can hope, expand our empathy, tolerance, and understanding. If, like literature, documentary photography is not some literal truth, the best of it, like the best of writing, engages our hearts and minds and helps us to be more wise and more human.
Photography as a medium has a well-established history with its chosen gallery of images as determined by a consensus of critics and historians. Most of the connoisseurs who write the judgments of history are familiar with Russell Lee as an FSA photographer. Many have never seen well-reproduced examples of his other work. The goal of this book is to provide all viewers a better chance to appreciate Lee's accomplishments.
Like all histories, that of photography is in constant flux, subject to further change. Special credit goes to photographers who defined an approach for their work, as did Henri Cartier-Bresson with his explication of photographic timing in The Decisive Moment, or who impressed an unexpected style and an attitude on their subject matter, as did Robert Frank in The Americans. Innovations and turning points such as these drive the creative work of a medium. Their authors deserve their place in history. Lee has been credited for bringing flash to FSA documentary work, resulting in pictures that would otherwise have been missed. Aesthetically these can be seen as stylistically bold, with their hard, flat, obvious lighting, or as deficient because that lighting can lack apparent naturalism. But Lee was not a technical, philosophical, or visual innovator in any large sense. He mastered some fundamental photographic approaches: strong, complex graphic design with large-format clarity, for which Walker Evans is more noted; sad and sensitive moments, which are seen as Dorothea Lange's legacy, e.g., "Migrant Mother"; and precise timing of multifaceted action, for which Cartier-Bresson has the premier credit. He produced images equal to the best work of more honored photographers.
Obviously intelligent and actually well read, Lee did not write or lecture philosophically about photography in general or about his own work. When I would ask how he got a particularly fine image, he would give a kind of "aw shucks" answer. The picture was there, he saw it, he took it. It was not to be explained. You do what you have to do. Nevertheless, Lee became an effective teacher. He taught by example, discussion, and critique. He got his students to see carefully the accomplishments of other artists and photographers. He particularly favored the artist Daumier and the photographer André Kertész. He could also be quite straightforward in telling students the shortcomings of their work while losing none of his personal warmth.
In 1949 Lee joined the Missouri Workshop, inaugurated the year before under the direction of Roy Stryker and Cliff Edom. Edom had earlier founded the photojournalism program at the University of Missouri, Columbia, the first and most noted academic program in the field. The Missouri Workshop's weeklong experiential training, still an annual event, has involved the best photojournalists and documentary photographers. Russ and Jean became codirectors of the workshop in 1955 and participated until 1962. Russ was back in 1976. A welcome newsletter to participants stated: "Russ Lee, a member of the famous Farm Security photographic team back in the 30's, had a greater influence during the formative years of the Workshop than did any other individual."
There is a clue to Russ's teaching in the workshop's daily newsletter that year:
RUSS LEE ADVISES THE "STUDENTS"!
For tonight's showing, organize your thoughts--don't rely on memory--put your thoughts down on paper so you can present concise, orderly statements about your project. There was too much rambling last night.
In the spring of 1965 the University of Texas Art Museum honored Lee with a huge retrospective exhibition of 269 photographs that also traveled to the Witte Museum in San Antonio and to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The exhibition prompted a request for Lee to teach in the studio art program of the university's art department, which he did starting that fall. The point was not to produce photographers but to train student artists to see more carefully. He began their education with the demands of the view camera. If they made it to the second semester they got to use a basic Pentax 35 mm SLR. There was always a waiting list for his classes, and to be his student was considered a privilege. This was his career until he retired in 1973. One of his first students, Janet Louise Rollins, wrote about Lee's teaching:
He waits for students to seek him out, rather than overwhelming them with solutions to problems which they have not yet been able to formulate for themselves. He seems to know intuitively when to praise, when to blame. His patience with error is infinite; his patience with laziness small. His smiling sense of humor is a soothing balm for even the most cutting criticism. With Russell Lee, students find a true joy in learning, just as he appears to find a true joy in teaching.
In his final working years Lee applied his natural abilities with people and his photographic experience to helping young artists and photographers.
In Lee's last years, Jean's health was so bad that they put an elevator in their Austin home so she could get to the bedrooms on the second floor, and Russ himself was failing with cancer. Russ and Jean had no children or relatives to call on, and one day Jean called my office asking for help. Russ couldn't get out of bed, and she wasn't strong enough to help him to the bathroom. She had hired professional help, due at midnight, but it was still midafternoon. They lived only ten minutes away, but by the time I got there she and Russ had managed without me, and he was propped up in his bed. Obviously weak, he talked with amazing vigor. It was all about plans for when he got out of bed, details of his next projects. To his last conversation, he was upbeat and enthusiastic. To the end he was a master of being with people while staying essentially alone. After about twenty minutes it was clear that he was tiring. I called my wife, Janet, who had just left the Lee home, to come back, since I had to return to work.
After she had been there for about thirty minutes, Janet made a quick run to buy Russ's favorite dessert. Jean fed him the raspberry sherbet while Janet sat on the floor just outside the bedroom door. After he ate it all, the two women came downstairs. They sat in the living room without saying a word, listening to his labored breathing coming from the room overhead. The one remaining poodle, now elderly herself, slept on the couch. About an hour later the house became completely silent.
Following the seminal innovators of photography there comes a significantly long list of accomplished masters of the medium. Count Russell Lee as one of the greatest of these.
“Lee's quietly passionate images are masterful works. They set a high standard for a kind of reflective journalism that reminds us that a fine artist may tell you most about himself when he focuses on others.”
The Texas Observer