Eye on Social Justice

“When you walked down a street with Russell Lee, just talking and looking around, you soon began to see things differently, through his eyes. Every detail of the street would seem to take on new, richer meanings. That kind of intuitive analysis, that kind of thoughtful interpretation of visual objects and realities is what you get in Russell’s photographs. As far as I know, Russell taught the only college course in seeing that I ever heard of.”

Those words come from Clyde “Red” Hare, an eminent, Pittsburgh-based photographer who became associated with Lee in 1955, after Lee and his wife Jean (who had been a photo editor for the State Department during World War II) became co-directors of the prestigious annual University of Missouri photojournalism program called the Missouri Photo Workshop.

Before I finally found Hare, I spent two weeks calling around the country, trying to locate more of Russell Lee’s colleagues from “the old days.” I wanted this review to benefit from their memories and thoughts about Lee and his work. But most of his older friends have died, and for some strange reason, that surprised me.

It’s been more than a century, 1903 to be precise, since Lee’s birth in Illinois, and more than two decades, 1986, since his death. This fine book, lovingly printed by the University of Texas Press, is a fitting tribute to an accomplished photographer who worked tirelessly to make the world a better place. It’s also a reminder that physical reality, the very taste and feel of the world, has changed. Words like class, work, and privilege meant different things in the world of the early 1950s, a world in which those in authority had recently lived through the Depression and World War II, a world where a working person could still buy a new Ford for about $2,000. My generation is the last to have had the experience of walking through a clearly marked “Whites Only” door at a local café.

It seems like only yesterday when I met Lee in the mid-1970s. He was living in a fine but unpretentious, 1900-era white frame house near UT, across the street from some student housing. Born into a wealthy family, his mother’s death when Lee was 10 left him an orphan to be shuttled between a military academy and relatives. Lee came into his own as a photographer in the 1930s while working for the Farm Security Administration. He would do some of his best work for the government, including a stint in the military during the war. Sitting in his old-fashioned living room, he once served me a cold beer while he told me about his service in the war and the days he spent shooting aerial photography from unarmed planes above hostile territory.

In 1947, Lee settled in Austin with his second wife Jean. She shared her passion for politics with him. In 1960, Lee visited Italy to photograph at the behest of UT professor of classics William Arrowsmith. There he took about 4,000 photographs, a number of which were used in Arrowsmith’s “The Image of Italy,” published in Texas Quarterly in September 1961, and many of which are included in this book. In 1965 UT asked Lee to give a one-man exhibition in the art department; this led to an invitation by the university to establish a photography program. From 1965 to 1973 Lee taught photography at UT, influencing hundreds of students.

His graceful voice emerges with dignity and purpose from the deliberate tonalities of the carefully crafted prints collected here. Lee’s voice is easy to hear if a viewer is “listening.” By all accounts, his oft-stated goal was not to create Fine Art, but to use his photographs—his documents—to communicate directly and clearly with as many people as possible. His friend Hare says flatly, “Russell was a documentary photographer. He was not interested in being an effete artist.”

The story of how Lee became a photographer underscores this point. After earning a chemical engineering degree from Lehigh in 1925, he began a career in manufacturing. His first wife’s interest in art prompted him to take up painting, but he switched to photography out of frustration with his drawing ability.

Lee spent his photographic career focused on capturing and considering the essence of people and social realities. He seemed little interested in creating pristine photographic prints that beg to be primarily considered and sold as existential art objects. (I still can’t believe that he once gave me, a stranger, a stack of good prints as casually as a prison lawyer gives away advice.) It is nevertheless true that the craft skills that glisten in his prints are one of the big reasons that his images continue to communicate in his way—in a gentlemanly and nonjudgmental way. He was a workingman and a trained chemist in a photographic age when chemistry really mattered. Looking at the sharp, clear lines in the resolute faces of the working poor he photographed so often, it is clear that he dedicated his craft to the dream of social justice.

As collector and photographer Will Faller says, “Although no fool, Russell tended to listen to his subjects and give them the benefit of the doubt, to believe that they were who they said they were.” Lee was, as Hare emphasizes, “not just a neat, nice guy, which is how he came across, but a neat, nice brilliant man.”

Lee’s earliest street photographs of New York in 1935-36 are timeless classics: In one, several edgy gentlemen from the Bowery are seen stalled and lurking near a tattered political poster advertising the candidates of Tammany Hall. In another, a man tries to warm his ungloved hand in a blinding Midtown snowstorm while carrying a sign advertising iceboxes. In others, the fabulous Father Divine and his flock first strut in parades, then catch their breaths in some hot Manhattan park.

When Lee moved to Texas, he became a Texan. He carried himself like a Texas gentleman, and his enthusiasm for exploring Texas was contagious. His images of Texas country and small-town life, particularly those from the 1950s, ring as loudly as any dirt-farm dinner bell and should bring a big smile to all sighted people who have ties to that era.

His photograph of a Texas grandmother aiming her rifle as deliberately as she probably made biscuits speaks volumes about how strong Texas women have always found a way to stand their ground. The photographs of Ralph Yarborough on the stump make it easy to see that Lee supported progressive politics.

Then there are the farmers and the barefoot boy in front of the rustic grocery store; and JFK sitting alongside LBJ and Mister Sam; and the mentally disturbed in the madhouse in Terrell (and that is what we called it back in those days); the 30-something mother in a simple cotton dress playing a newish Gibson parlor guitar that would fetch $10,000-plus today; and sweet watermelons for 3-and-a-half cents a pound; and the cowboys; and—there it is: Texas.

Lee’s photographs of the Mexican community in Texas around 1949 represent some of his most compelling work. His sympathy and affection for these new immigrants, who lived in poverty and struggled against various kinds of discrimination, is obvious. As he worked around their homes—shacks, really—Lee carefully documented the military medals won by the fathers and brothers during “the War.” He took notice of the graduation pictures that gleamed in the brass, dime-store frames that leaned against rough, unpainted walls. He took seriously the steady, unflinching gazes of the men as they began to organize politically.

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 first he focuses on others.

Steve Satterwhite is a photojournalist currently living in Duncanville, Texas. His photography can be seen online at his web site www.stevesatterwhite.com.

Young man on a street corner

Young man on a street corner, Rockdale, Texas. 1951. All photos by Russell Lee.

District meeting of PAPA (Pan American Progress Association)

District meeting of PAPA (Pan American Progress Association), San Antonio, Texas. 1962.

Family group moving from Texas to Wyoming for work in sugar beet fields

Family group moving from Texas to Wyoming for work in sugar beet fields, San Angelo, Texas. 1949.

Survivor of Bataan Death March

Survivor of Bataan Death March, San Antonio Texas. 1954.

Contestant with her prize sheep at Austin Fat Stock Show

Contestant with her prize sheep at Austin Fat Stock Show, Austin. 1956.

Yarborough campaign onlookers

Yarborough campaign onlookers, Mount Vernon, Texas. 1954.

Musicians at Yarborough campaign event

Musicians at Yarborough campaign event. 1954.

Target practice at Cypress Gun and Rifle Club

Target practice at Cypress Gun and Rifle Club, Cypress, Texas. 1962.

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Published at 12:00 am CST