Knocking on Heaven’s Door

by Alan Pogue


Along with Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, Russell Lee (1903-1986) captured the essence of America in the Depression while working as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration. Lee went on to take thousands of photographs for the U.S. Army’s Air Transport Command during World War II and documented the conditions of mineworkers for the U.S. Department of the Interior. After the war, he and his wife Jean settled in Austin. Russell Lee became the Observer’s first staff photographer. Last year, the one hundredth anniversary of his birth was celebrated with an exhibition at the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern & Mexican Photography, Alkek Library at Texas State University. The following article is adapted from a talk that Observer photographer Alan Pogue delivered at TSU. “Go Out and Look: The Photography of Russell Lee” is currently on exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center Galleries at the University of Texas at Austin through October 17.

It wasn’t until 1976 that I really got to know Russell Lee. I was videotaping an oral history of women in the Texas labor movement, going all over the state talking to women about what they were doing in the ’30s. A lot of them were garment workers, but also there was Emma Tenayuca and the pecan shellers. Russell told me to go to the Library of Congress and so I did. I spent a week there and then went to the National Archives. I would go into these endless stacks of four-by-five negatives that he had taken. That’s when I really learned what Russell Lee was all about. After that, whenever I was doing anything new, I would go back to Russell Lee and show him my work. There’s one piece of advice that he had for everybody. It didn’t matter whether it was Richard Avedon or a first-year college student. He’d say, “Walk through the door. Don’t stop at the front of the house or the building. Go inside. Meet people. Find out what their life is like. You’re a photographer, so of course you photograph all these things. But walk through the door. Encounter people. Converse with them. Learn what they’re all about.”

Avedon came to meet Russell Lee when he was doing his “In the West” photography. He told Russell Lee that he was going to Arizona or someplace, New Mexico, to photograph miners. And Russell got all excited because he himself had taken all these pictures of miners in Tennessee after World War II and other places for a big study on the health condition of miners. “Great,” he said. “You’re going to go down into the mines and photograph these guys. That’s wonderful.” And Richard Avedon said, “Whoa, not me. I’m a studio photographer. I’m going to get them to come out of the mines and stand in front and photograph them with an 8 by 10 camera.” Russell Lee just shook his head and said, “OK, but that’s not the real deal. You have to go where the people are and photograph them. Not get them to do what you want to do.” That’s what he would say to first-year students as well: “Go knock on the door. See if you can get in. Go inside.”

He was 32 when he started taking pictures. He had trained as a chemical engineer, but his first wife was an artist. He said he couldn’t draw, and thought that if he started taking pictures it would help him paint. But as soon as he started taking pictures he forgot about the painting. He was able to get into all these places because he was so warm and friendly.

Once inside, he didn’t shirk from whatever was there; he noticed sadness and alienation. I have to think it’s because his mother was killed in an automobile accident. She had stepped out of her car on a snowy night and was struck by an oncoming car. Russell was sitting in the backseat. His parents were divorced and he went from relative to relative. The family had some money; he was not uncomfortable. But he changed homes and schools often, and I can’t help but think that that gave him a much different view of life—he was very sensitive to people who were dislocated. And, of course when he started taking pictures it was the Depression and people were literally pulled out of their homes, off their farms. So, besides having a highly skilled visual sense, their stories resonated with him.

He never posed anyone. I remember once I showed him a photograph of several young men that I had taken. They had fallen into a very pleasing composition, and he asked, “Well, did you pose them?” I said, “No. I just let them take whatever position they felt like taking.” He was very happy. Russell Lee was a very subtle teacher. He didn’t say, “You should do this and you shouldn’t do that.” He just looked for whatever was good in whatever a student was doing and he promoted that in their work. But he had a few tricks up his sleeve. He might be in a room and ask the children, “Well, what do you do in this room and what do you do with this mirror?” And they’d say, “I comb my hair.” And he would say,

“Well, would you do that for me?” Just a subtle little direction.

You do what you have to do. Life processes. How do people wash their clothes? How do people cook their food? What do they do for entertainment? Where do they go to church? It was these very basic parts of our lives that he was interested in.

He took a whole series of photographs of children who look sad and dislocated. But children and people in general can—even in the worst of circumstances—entertain themselves and find joy in life as best as they can.

Sometimes you go can go through the door and no matter what, you can still see remarkable beauty.