Italian couple. Agrigato, 1960. Russe ll Lee. Cen te r for Amer ican His tory. 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 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 Schoolgirl. San Angelo, Texas, 1949. 9/24/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
You May Also Like
The Texas Rangers are tasked with investigating corruption and crimes by public officials. Those officials are rarely held accountable.