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Russell Lee: A Centenary Exhibition

MARCH 29 - OCTOBER 12, 2003
RUSSELL LEE: A Centenary Exhibition

Russell Lee: The Man Who Made America's Portrait

Russell Lee was born in 1903, the year the Wright Brothers made their first flight at Kitty Hawk, the year the first silent movie, The Great Train Robbery debuted, the year Pittsburgh lost the first World Series to Boston, and the year President Theodore Roosevelt and Britain’s King Edward VII exchanged the first transatlantic wireless communication.Born at the dawn of the Edwardian era—a time of faith in the superiority of technology—Lee embraced technology and science: he trained to become a chemical engineer and a photographer, skills he combined with a strong social conscience to create a compelling photographic portrait of America and a legacy which would profoundly influence the course of photography.

Although his photographic career spanned four decades, Russell Lee is best known for his work from 1936 until 1942, making pictures for the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal program designed to assist poor and destitute farmers during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.Along with a stable of photographers that included Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, John Collier, Marion Post Wolcott, Walker Evans, and Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee worked directly under the creative supervision of Roy Stryker, head of the FSA’s Historical Section and director of photographic projects. Stryker’s documentary team created approximately 164,000 negatives from 1935 until 1942; of these, 77,000 were printed and used to promote the FSA’s programs.

Of all the FSA photographers, Russell Lee created the largest body of work and covered the greatest geographic territory. He photographed in 29 states. From wheat fields in Walla Walla to tenements in the Bronx,from pay day in a Minnesota lumber town to life in a small Texas town, Russell Lee traversed the country for six years, exploring and creating a visual document of life in America during one of its most desperate eras. He documented victims of floods, droughts and epidemics with the same compassion and sensitivity that he used to photograph migrants, tenants and sharecroppers. He was, without question, the most deeply committed of any of the FSA photographers.

During his FSA tenure, Russell Lee developed a photographic style that distinguished his images from those of his colleagues and influenced countless numbers of photographers who came after him. His technical acuity enabled his experimentation with developers that allowed him to “push” his film at a time when the fastest film speed was an ASA of 20. This manipulation, paired with the evolution of his groundbreaking technique of multiple flash in the field, enabled Lee to photograph interiors in great detail.oday, the work produced by the FSA photographers provides us with a collective memory of the era of the Great Depression and subsequent mobilization for war. These images have now become so much a part of our national experience that most adults in America have seen them and can conjure up a visual “memory” of the time, whether they lived through it or not. More prolific than any of the other FSA photographers, Russell Lee created some of the most recognized images to emerge from the Great Depression.

Russell Lee went on to photograph for the Office of War Information and Air Transport Command during World War II, and subsequently for the Coal Mines Administration and Standard Oil. He had a prolific career as a freelance photographer, most notably for New York Times Magazine, The Texas Observer and Magnum Photos Inc. and taught photography at UT Austin from 1965 to 1973. Russell Lee died in 1986, survived by his wife Jean Lee.


—Text adapted from the exhibition catalog essay “The Man Who Made
America’s Portrait: Russell Lee 1903-1986” by Mary Jane Appel.

The Russell Lee Centenary Exhibition originates from the Wittliff's permanent Lee collection, which was established in 1986 with generous donations by Jean Lee and Bill and Sally Wittliff. With over 70 images by Lee, the exhibition was curated by guest curator Mary Jane Appel and Collections Curator Connie Todd.