Russell Lee

Russell Lee

Russell Lee was born in Ottawa, Illinois, in 1903. In 1936 Lee was invited by Roy Stryker to join the the federally sponsored Farm Security Administration. This small group of photographers, including Esther Bubley, Marjory Collins, Mary Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Charlotte Brooks, John Vachon, Carl Mydans, Jack Delano, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn, were employed to publicize the conditions of the rural poor in America.

In 1939 Lee took the famous Migrant Child Returning Home from Fields, Prague, Oklahoma. The photograph illustrated the problems of child labour in rural America.

Lee became the first instructor of photography at the University of Texas in 1965.

Russell Lee died in Austin, Texas, in 1986.

Russ Lee

During the 1990s, contemporary Christian music vocalist Russ Lee became known just as much for his enthusiasm as for his voice. After several years as lead singer of the hitmaking CCM band Newsong, Lee…
Read Full Biography

Artist Biography by Joslyn Layne

During the 1990s, contemporary Christian music vocalist Russ Lee became known just as much for his enthusiasm as for his voice. After several years as lead singer of the hitmaking CCM band Newsong, Lee embarked on a solo career in the late '90s. In addition to his Dove award nomination for Best Male Vocalist and his hits with Newsong, Lee found success with his solo debut, Words in Time, which included a rousing song that was soon to become the anthem for Lee and many CCM listeners, "Live What I Believe."

Born in Cleveland, TN, Lee grew up in the small Smokey Mountains town, hitting hard times during his teenage years, as he cared for his younger siblings while his mother struggled with mental illness and his father battled with alcoholism. In his early teens, he began working outside the home, too, seeking independence and stability. Lee first got into music playing guitar in a bar band, and got involved with drugs around the same age, but became increasingly dissatisfied with his life. Lee eventually reached a breaking point, began attending Church, and turned his life around.

His enthusiasm for ministry (Lee is an ordained minister) and his love of music eventually led to Lee singing in the Christian group Truth, then joining popular CCM band Newsong in the early '90s. As lead vocalist, Lee toured and recorded several albums with Newsong. In the late '90s, Lee decided to pursue a solo career and moved from Atlanta, GA, back to Tennessee, this time with his wife and children.

They moved to Nashville, and there, Russ Lee embarked on his solo career, signing to EMI's Christian label, Sparrow Records, and working with producers Brian McCloud (Sheryl Crow) and Glen Rosenstein (Caedmon's Call) on his debut album, Words in Time (2000). This album features all original material -- with the exception of Lee's cover of a Mike and the Mechanics hit, "The Living Years" -- that melds his pop music influences with his message. The opening cut on Words in Time, "Live What I Believe," quickly became a favorite on Christian radio, and was even more enthusiastically received at live performances, becoming a kind of anthem for Lee and his Christian listeners. Late 2000 found Russ Lee on tour with vocal group Avalon, and preparing for his role as King Herod in a musical about the birth of Jesus.


Dr. Russel V.A. Lee, who helped make group practice an important part of American health care, died Wednesday at his home in Portola Valley, Calif. He was 86 years old and had been in declining health for five years.

A tall, lean man with a ruddy face, white goatee and penetrating gaze, Dr. Lee became known as a champion of such controversial causes such as prepaid medical care, abortion, population control and free drugs for addicts. He was a founder of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, one of the nation's first group practice clinics and today one of its largest, with 130 doctors.

As a practitioner, Dr. Lee made 250,000 house calls and had many famous patients, among them Gen. Henry H. Arnold, wartime commander of the Army Air Forces.

Dr. Lee became embroiled in a national controversy after President Truman appointed him a member of his Commission on the Health Needs of the Nation. It urged federally supported, prepaid national health insurance and expansion of group practice. Plan Opposed in A.M.A.

When officials of the American Medical Association introduced in the associassociation's House of Delegates a condemning the recommendations of the commission's five-volume report, Dr. Lee led the opposition, which won by a 4-vote margin.

A leader in health education, Dr. Lee used $8,000 won in a poker game to help finance legislation to control venereal disease. Dr. Lee's provocative statements were not limited to medical subjects. In 1964, at a conference on the future of the family at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco, he said: ''The male needs a long tether and the wife is well advised to see that he gets it. Men really suffer in marriage more than do women.'' Yet he said he was not out to abolish the family because there was ''no better device for raising children.''

Russel Van Arsdale Lee was born in 1895 in Spanish Fork, Ut ah, where his father was a Presbyterian minister. In an autobiographical article in Medical World News in 1973, Dr. Le e said that he was delivered by a Harvard physician who was exil ed to his home town because of ''intermittent alcoholism.'' Dr. L ee said that after his own birth this doctor was recalled from the l ocal bar to deliver his twin brother. Dropped Engineering Plan

A career in medicine was Russel Lee's last choice while an undergraduate at Stanford. He abandoned his first choice, chemical engineering, largely because he was colorblind and believed that defect would preclude such a career. Apparently he did not consider it a problem in medicine.

While attending Stanford Medical School in the daytime, Dr. Lee ran an emergency hospital in a shipyard at night to pay his tuition and support his wife.

After practicing briefly in San Francisco, Dr. Lee moved in 1924 to Palo Alto, where the demands of his growing practice became excessive. Soon Dr. Lee began gathering physician partners into a group practice that later became the Palo Alto Medical Clinic.

The founders, Dr. Lee said, aimed at developing a clinic that met the care needs of the community rather than a referral center like the Mayo Clinic, which was started 25 years earlier.

Dr. Lee's group met active opposition from members of the Palo Alto community. Elsewhere, the concept of group practice was slow to catch on. Dr. Lee said one reason for the delay was the condemnation of group practice by A.M.A. officials as ''nothing but a device for fee-splitting.'' His Chief Disappointment

He once said his greatest disapppointment in life had been not achieving more as a physician, and he attributed the failing to too many diversions. His library grew to 15,000 volumes and his collection of ch ess sets numbered 150. He owned vineyards and three ranches and s old some of his property to Palo Alto so that it became a park. He ea rned a pilot's license at the age of 50 and flew for eight years b efore giving it up because he thought himself too old.

Dr. Lee's life spanned many major medical advances and he benefited from some himself. For more than a decade, his heartbeat was regulated by a pacemaker.

Dr. Lee's wife, Dorothy, died in 1972. They had five children, all physicians. Two sons are at the Palo Alto Medical Clinic: Dr. Richard Lee, an obstetrician, and Dr. Russel H. Lee, who became executive director of the clinic earlier this month. Dr. Peter Lee is a professor of medicine and pharmacology at the University of Southern California. Dr. Philip Lee, former Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, is a professor of environmental health at the University of California at San Francisco. A daughter, Dr. Margo Paulsen, died in 1973.

755 Lee Street
Alexander City, Alabama 35011-0272


Public Company
Incorporated: 1902 as Russell Manufacturing Company
Employees: 15,737
Sales: $1.18 billion (1998)
Stock Exchanges: New York Pacific
Ticker Symbol: RML
NAIC: 315211 Men's & Boys' Cut & Sew Apparel Contractors 315212 Women's, Girls', & Infants' Cut & Sew Apparel Contractors 31321 Broadwoven Fabric Mills 315191 Outerwear Knitting Mills 313311 Broadwoven Fabric Finishing Mills

Company Perspectives:

We are building a brand new Company. Russell's future is about transforming a manufacturing-driven organization into a world-class consumer marketing Company that will compete successfully on a global basis. Everything we do is about fulfilling this goal.

From humble origins in a small Alabama town in 1902, Russell Corporation has evolved into a leading manufacturer and marketer of activewear, athletic uniforms, knit shirts, licensed athletic apparel, sports and casual socks, and woven fabrics. Vertically integrated, Russell is involved in the entire process of converting raw fibers into finished apparel and fabrics. The company's three principal brands are Russell Athletic, which is the largest producer of athletic team uniforms in the United States Jerzees, known for its popularly priced fleece and lightweight activewear and Cross Creek, maker of knit golf wear and other casualwear.

Early 20th-Century Founding

Founder Benjamin Russell was only 25 when he bought six knitting machines from R.A. Almond in 1902. Russell, a struggling lawyer in Birmingham, Alabama, was anxious to return home to Alexander City and open his own business. With borrowed money, he incorporated Russell Manufacturing Company in 1902, remaining its president until he died in 1941. Russell's knitting machines, 12 sewing machines, and 12 employees were crammed into a 50 by 100 foot wooden building. Because of the lack of electricity, Russell Manufacturing Company relied on steam for power. At the end of the first year of production, the company was turning out 150 items of clothing per day. Though first year profits were disappointing, the entrepreneurial young owner envisioned his plant expanding into all aspects of the garment making business.

Russell's dream was slowly realized, and profits grew steadily in the following years. Six years after opening his plant, Russell acquired spinning frames, allowing the company to produce its own yarn. Several years later, it could bleach its own cloth. Electricity came to the plant in 1912, and two years later a second yarn plant went into operation.

Demand for cloth and yarn shot up dramatically during World War I, during which time the company expanded and prospered. When the war ended, the ensuing recession left the company unaffected because the demand for yarn continued. In response, the company added workers and plants. Also at this time, the Russell Mill School was established for educating the children of employees as well as for adult programs. The company's fourth yarn plant began operation in 1921, and in early 1927 a weaving operation was installed. By the end of the year Russell Manufacturing Company could dye its own cotton and yarn, coming close to realizing Benjamin Russell's ambition of making his company a completely vertical or "fiber to fabric" operation.

Moving into Athletic Wear and Screen Printing: 1930s

Until 1932, however, fabric still had to be sent to other U.S. plants for finishing. Despite the company's losses during the Great Depression, Benjamin Russell decided to expand his business. The worst year of the Depression, 1932, turned into a milestone year for the 30-year-old company it acquired full finishing operations, thereby becoming one of the few fully vertical fabric factories in the world. That same year Benjamin Russell's son, Benjamin C. Russell, established an athletics division called the Southern Manufacturing Company. Its first products were football jerseys sold to a sporting goods distributor in New York. In 1938 the company's first screen printing developed for the printing of names, numbers, and designs on athletic uniforms. In 1960 the Southern Manufacturing Company was renamed the Russell Athletic Division. No one in 1932 would have guessed that this unobtrusive sideline would alter the company's identity from that of a domestic fabric manufacturer to a global leader in the sportswear industry.

Civilian textile manufacturing declined during World War II because of enormous government clothing contracts that strained the company. By war's end, machinery was badly in need of repair because replacement materials had been difficult to obtain during the war years. In addition the company's founder, Benjamin Russell, had died at the outset of World War II. His son Benjamin C. Russell took over the helm during the difficult but prosperous war years but died prematurely of pneumonia in 1945. Another Russell son, Thomas Dameron Russell, succeeded to the helm. By the time he stepped down as president 23 years later, the company had become a leading manufacturer of athletic and leisure wear and exited the fashion clothing manufacturing business.

In the 1950s sporting and leisure wear had not yet caught on with the general public. With two domestic recessions, the company was hard hit by falling sales and growing competition, and expansion was temporarily impeded. Changes in the clothing industry, however, helped Russell rebound. By the early 1960s, T-shirts had become acceptable garb for both sexes. In the late 1960s the unisex trend in clothing strengthened while leisure clothing became popular in the early 1970s. These trends served to Russell's advantage. In 1966 a new sewing plant was established in Montgomery, Alabama (the first Russell plant to be built outside of Alexander City). Four years later, the Athletic Division had expanded so much that a separate plant became necessary. The company went public in 1963. The firm, whose name had altered in 1962 to Russell Mills, Inc., would be a public stockholding company in which the Russell family and other insiders would continue to own approximately 32 percent of the stock.

Modernization and Expansion in the 1970s and 1980s

In 1968 Eugene C. Gwaltney became president of Russell Mills (which in 1973 would alter its name to Russell Corporation). That year company sales stood at $51 million. During Gwaltney's term in office, plant expansion continued. The company's screen printing facilities were enlarged, and it acquired a yarn manufacturing plant in northeast Georgia in 1977. In the mid-1970s Russell opened a new distribution center in Alexander City. All operations at this ultramodern facility, such as storage retrieval, shipping, and goods reception, were fully automated and consolidated. At the same time, new buildings went up to house operations including data processing, personnel, and security. By 1981, with the consolidation of knitting into one plant, Russell could boast the most modern knitting facilities in the world. Expansion into Florida and south Alabama took place after 1982, the year Eugene Gwaltney was elected chairman of the board and was succeeded as president by Dwight L. Carlisle.

In 1989 the Russell Corporation test and evaluation mill was constructed at a cost of $6 million. This was an innovative facility in which new machinery was evaluated before purchase, avoiding the interruptions in operations implicit in tests during the production process. By 1990 the company owned and operated 13 sewing plants outside of Alexander City and employed 15,000 workers. Since 1976 sales revenues had increased by 13 percent annually. With the acquisition of two subsidiaries, Quality Mills in North Carolina and Cloathbond Ltd. in Scotland, in 1988 and 1989 respectively, the company had become a global contender in the sportswear industry.

According to market analysts, a key to the company's success was its aggressive technological modernization. In a five-year period ending in 1992, the company invested more than half a billion dollars in capital expenditures which translated into approximately 15 percent of annual sales--far higher than the industry's average of eight percent. In addition, the company spent at least three percent of sales revenues on print and television advertising. In both 1980 and 1990 Textile World cited Russell Corporation as the "Model Mill" of the year. Another reason for the company's success was research and development. In 1992 an innovative new material that prevented pilling, NuBlend, was introduced in Russell's Jerzees line of sportswear and won accolades from the leisurewear industry. Partly because NuBlend was the preferred fabric for screen printers, Russell held the top market share in the fleece screen printing business at 30 percent.

Under president and CEO John C. Adams, who succeeded the retiring Carlisle in 1991, approximately 80 percent of Russell Corporation's early 1990s sales were derived from its principal divisions: Athletic, Knit Apparel, Fabrics, and its major U.S. subsidiary, Cross Creek Apparel, Inc. (formerly Quality Mills). The company had become the top manufacturer of athletic uniforms in the nation. In 1992 Russell was awarded a five-year contract to serve as the exclusive producer and marketer of athletic uniforms for most Major League Baseball teams. The contract also stipulated that the company held the exclusive right to manufacture and market replicas of major league uniforms, T-shirts, and shorts. This put the company in an advantageous position in relation to its main rival, Champion, Inc., the supplier of uniforms to the NBA teams. The Knit Apparel Division produced the Jerzees brand of activewear, which had been introduced in 1983, and included T-shirts, fleece, knit shorts, and tank tops, which were sold to specialized retailers and large merchandisers such as Wal-Mart. Cross Creek produced the Cross Creek Pro Collection, featuring casual knit shirts and rugbys, which were sold mainly in golf pro shops, and Cross Creek Country Cottons, which were purchased by screen printers and embroiderers for resale. The remainder of Russell's revenues were derived from the Fabrics Division, which manufactured and marketed lightweight cotton material for sale to clothing manufacturers, and from its European subsidiary, Russell Corp. UK Ltd. in Scotland. This subsidiary had been acquired in 1989 under the name Cloathbond, Ltd. it was a vertical establishment that manufactured and marketed a full line of Russell clothing, from the cotton fiber to the finished product, for the European market. This international expansion helped the company approach $1 billion in sales in the early 1990s. In 1992 alone, Russell's international sales increased 40 percent over 1991.

In April 1993 Gwaltney retired as chairman of Russell, ending a 41-year career at the company. Adams then served as chairman, president, and CEO. Later that year Russell paid $35 million to acquire The Game, Inc., a maker of licensed sports headgear and apparel, with a leading position in the marketing of such products for colleges and universities. The name of the acquired entity was changed to Licensed Products Division in 1994. That year Russell acquired Fort Payne, Alabama-based Desoto Mills, a finisher/manufacturer and marketer of sports and casual socks under the Desoto Players Club, Athletic Club, Performance Club, and Player Performance brand names. Russell also acquired the trademarks and licenses of Chalk Line, Inc. in 1994, a year in which the company's revenues exceeded $1 billion for the first time.

Major Restructuring in the Late 1990s

Although sales and net income reached record levels in 1996, in part because of the impact of the Summer Olympics which were held in Atlanta that year, Russell's fortunes turned south in 1997 when both sales and net income fell. The decline was caused by intensifying competition as industrywide overcapacity and price-cutting by rivals forced Russell to lower its own prices, all of which hurt the company's results. Particularly troubled was the Licensed Products Division, which Russell dissolved in 1997, dividing its operations among the other divisions. In 1997 Russell also ended its licensing deals with the professional football, basketball, and hockey leagues.

In early 1998, as the company's troubles continued, Adams retired stepping in as chairman, president, and CEO was John "Jack" Ward, former CEO of the Hanes Group and senior vice-president of Sara Lee Corporation. Within months of Ward's arrival, Russell announced a major restructuring. Over a three-year period, the company planned to eliminate about 4,000 jobs, or 23 percent of its workforce close about 25 of its 90 plants, distribution centers, and other facilities and move most of the final assembly of garments abroad, to Mexico, Honduras, and elsewhere in the Caribbean basin. The company expected to take charges of $100 to $125 million during the restructuring period. Russell hoped these efforts would result in annual savings of $50--$70 million. Part of these funds would then be used to bolster the marketing and advertising of Russell's brands, including tripling the advertising budget to $25 million per year. Russell also established a second headquarters in Atlanta in February 1999, a move designed to make travel more convenient and to aid in recruiting efforts, particularly of marketing aces who did not relish the idea of living in the small town of Alexander City.

Finally, in January 1999 Russell reorganized into six strategic business units as part of its transformation from a manufacturing-driven organization to a consumer-oriented marketing corporation. Each of the units was self-contained, with full responsibility and accountability for results each included such functional areas as manufacturing, sales, marketing, finance, information systems, and human resources. Three of the units centered around a major Russell brand: Russell Athletic, Jerzees, and Cross Creek. Fabrics and Services focused on quality woven fabrics, as well as housing some central service functions operating companywide. Russell Yarn was established as a supplier of yarn for the manufacture of Russell textiles and apparel. The International Division was charged with marketing all Russell branded products outside the United States and Canada it conducted business in 50 countries in all.

Restructuring charges led Russell to post a fiscal 1998 net loss of $10.4 million on revenues of $1.18 billion. Results for the first half of 1999 also showed a net loss--of $12.9 million--but the restructuring had resulted in a decrease in selling, general, and administration costs of 13 percent. Russell had also increased its offshore apparel assembly to 55 percent of total capacity, a substantial increase from the 17 percent mark before the restructuring was launched. Russell had far to go before it could be considered "turned around," but it appeared that the company was well on its way.

Principal Subsidiaries: Cross Creek Apparel, Inc. DeSoto Mills, Inc. Russell Corp. UK Ltd.

Principal Operating Units: Russell Athletic Jerzees Cross Creek Fabrics and Services Russell Yarn International.

Bernstein, Andy, "John Adams: The SGB Interview," Sporting Goods Business, September 22, 1997, pp. 26--27.
Ebenkamp, Becky, and Terry Lefton, "Russell Shows Some Muscle," Brandweek, May 10, 1999, p. 1.
Hagerty, James R., "Russell's New CEO Is Looking to Make Rivals Sweat: Stock Price Bulks Up on Plans for a Trimmer Athletic-Gear Company," Wall Street Journal, August 5, 1998, p. B4.
Leibowitz, David S., "Finding Value in Small Town America (Russell and Dean Foods' Stocks)," Financial World, February 2, 1993, p. 86.
Lloyd, Brenda, "Russell Corp. to Cut 4,000 Employees and Close 25 Facilities," Daily News Record, July 24, 1998, p. 1.
------, "Russell Sees Sales Hitting $1.1B, Increase in Earnings for Year," Daily News Record, April 28, 1994, pp. 5&plus.
McCurry, John, "Adams Retires, Russell Names Ward As CEO," Textile World, May 1998, pp. 24&plus.
----, "'New' Russell Stresses 'Global,"' Textile World, March 1999, p. 20.
Miller, Andy, "Russell Hopes to Score with Baseball Apparel," Atlanta Constitution, January 21, 1992, p. D1.
"Russell Corp. Says It Will Cut 4,000 Jobs, Shift Work Abroad," Wall Street Journal, July 23, 1998, p. A6.
"Russell's All Star Line-up: Managing for the Distance Russell Manufacturing Tops Technology Curve," Textile World, June 1990, pp. 40--64.
Saunders, Thomas B., "A History of Russell Corporation," Alexander City, Ala.: Russell Corporation, 1990.
Smarr, Susan L., "Looking at the Big Picture," Bobbin, February 1990, pp. 60--64.
"TW's 1996 Leader of the Year: John C. Adams," Textile World, October 1996, pp. 36--38, 40, 43--44, 46.
Welling, Kathryn M., "Out of Fashion Buys: An Analyst Cottons Up to Selected Apparel Stocks," Barron's, July 9, 1990, pp. 12--13, 28--29, 50.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories , Vol. 30. St. James Press, 2000.

Russell Lee - History

Documentary photographer Russell Lee was born in Illinois in 1903. Trained as a chemical engineer and a painter, he took his first photographs in 1935. He worked for the Farm Security Administration from 1936 to 1942 and remained active in the field of documentary photography until 1977. Lee, who enjoyed a reputation for technical excellence and sensitivity to his subjects, moved to Austin, Texas, in 1947. Although he often traveled as a free-lance photographer and on assignment for magazines, corporations, the federal government, and the University of Texas, Austin remained his home and Texas a major focus of his work until his death in 1986. From 1965 to 1973 he taught photography at the University of Texas.

Scope and Contents

The collection consists primarily of Lee's work after he left the federal government in 1946. Major series include a study of Spanish-speaking people of Texas (1949-1952), the Italy portfolio (1960), documentation of the campaigns of Texas senator Ralph Yarborough, and other community activities and industrial operations, mainly in Texas and the southwest.



Conditions Governing Access

A portion of this collection is stored remotely contact repository in advance for retrieval.

Conditions Governing Use

Addition (AR 2002-127), consisting of annotated Farm Security Administration prints, is for research purposes only. Reproductions and permission must be obtained from the Library of Congress.

Index Terms

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Russell Lee Photograph Collection, 1935-1977, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

OCLC Number

Accession Numbers

88-044 2002-127 2007-025 2007-157 2007-183 2007-190 2007-232 2011-018 2016-293 2018-242 2019-0612019-234 2020-135

Russell Lee: A Photographer's Life and Legacy: Local History Series

Photographic historian, Mary Jane Appel, will present on Ottawa native Russell Lee. Russell Lee was a photojournalist famous for his photographs of the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration underneath Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency.

Mary Jane Appel is the author of the new book Russell Lee: A Photographer’s Life and Legacy and completed research for her book at the Reddick Library and throughout Ottawa. To participate, click on the Zoom registration link

Photographic historian, Mary Jane Appel, will present on Ottawa native Russell Lee. Russell Lee was a photojournalist famous for his photographs of the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration underneath Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency.

Oral history interview with Russell and Jean Lee, 1964 June 2

Format: Originally recorded on 1 sound tape reel. Reformatted in 2010 as 2 digital wav files. Duration is 1 hr., 44 min.

Summary: An interview of Russell and Jean Lee conducted 1964 June 2, by Richard Doud, for the Archives of American Art.
Russell speaks of his background and education his early interest in photography meeting Roy Stryker and Ben Shahn early assignments with FSA covering floods and droughts in the Midwest overcoming technical problems while traveling around cameras he experimented with working in small towns and rural areas working under Roy Stryker. He recalls John Vachon, Arthur Rothstein, and Walker Evans. Jean speaks of her first association with the FSA and working under Paul Vanderbilt. Both give personal opinions of the value of the work produced by the FSA, and speak of feelings toward the rural people who were the focus of the FSA project.

Biographical/Historical Note

Russell Lee (1903-1986) was a photographer with the Farm Security Administration. Jean Russell was an administrator under Paul Vanderbilt with the Farm Security Administration of Austin, Tex.


This interview conducted as part of the Archives of American Art's New Deal and the Arts project, which includes over 400 interviews of artists, administrators, historians, and others involved with the federal government's art programs and the activities of the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s and early 1940s.


Funding for the digital preservation of this interview was provided by a grant from the Save America's Treasures Program of the National Park Service.

How to Use This Collection

Transcript: 35mm microfilm reel 3697 available at Archives of American Art offices and through interlibrary loan.

Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Russell and Jean Lee, 1964 June 2. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Russell Lee - History

P hotographers, like actors, can be typecast. When you are the go-to person for a particular kind of job, it's an advantage. When you can't get the out-of-type assignments you'd like to increase your income and demonstrate your scope, it's a curse. The same thinking applies to the history of photography where even the greatest photographers are too often known for a particular style or subject, ignoring the broader range of their accomplishments. A few best hits oft repeated become our signature memory of their careers.

Photo history has typecast Russell Lee as a documentary photographer who photographed American life in the 1930s during the hard times of the Great Depression. That work was done for the Farm Security Agency (FSA), a federal agency to help displaced farmers that also documented them and other Americans as part of its mission. Working for the FSA earned Lee his place in the pantheon of photographers to respect and remember. However, typecasting, a self-effacing nature and limited distribution of his later work have resulted in a general failure to fully appreciate Lee's accomplishments, an array of visual insights that extend far beyond his work for the FSA.

Lee and his wife Jean, who traveled with him for many of his projects, donated his personal collection of negatives and associated files to The Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. The original materials for everything but his work for the government, some commercial work, and his color photography are included. There it has joined a growing photographic collection that documents American life and history. In 2005 the University of Texas Press asked CAH photo archivist and curator Linda Peterson to submit a proposal for a Russell Lee book project. The proposal was approved and Linda engaged the great curator and historian John Szarkowski to write the preface and me to write the introduction. Linda kept the plum job of selecting and arranging the photographs for herself with a lot of input from me, Roy Flukinger, and Dr. Don Carleton, the Center's director. This was a heartfelt project for me. Many Friday afternoons I had joined a group that drank Scotch and enjoyed Central Texas barbecue with Russ. I used his personal copy slides to teach about his work in my history of photography classes. In his last year Dr. Julianne Newton and I helped him review his files and determine their disposition. In his last hours I had a final conversion with this great photographer who was optimistic and forward-looking to the end.

Chronologically, the CAH Lee archive begins with nearly 40 35mm rolls of his earliest work from 1935-36, before he joined the FSA. He approached a far greater range of subjects than the famous sad street scenes of out-of-work men in New York City where he spent winters, and the desperate auctions of household goods in the Woodstock artist's colony where he lived in milder weather. His Contax I camera pointed to upscale life as well as the unfortunate. He managed interiors as well as exteriors despite the limits of slow film and no flash synch. The themes he continued to explore throughout his photographic life were established early including political life, street scenes, shopping, portraiture, personal and public spaces.

Frowning political speaker. Note his forefinger stuck in the watch pocket of his vest and the array of expressions on those behind him. This penetrating document was Lee&rsquos earliest take on American political life, a subject he dealt with extensively during his Texas years. 1935/36.

© Russell Lee Photograph Collection, Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin

Old woman in shawl, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, 1960

© Russell Lee Photograph Collection, Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin

He did reconnect with Roy Stryker, for whom he had worked at the FSA. Stryker was now working with Standard Oil creating an industrially motivated documentary project. This led Lee to commercial projects for oil and steel companies, travel to Saudi Arabia and Europe, and some of his finest large-format photography.

Two projects of special interest in the CAH collection are photography for the Study of Spanish-Speaking People in Texas (1949), and for a special issue of a University publication, Texas Quarterly, titled Image of Italy. He traveled through the country in the summer of 1960, from Sicily to the Dolomites, to provide over 150 illustrations. He was at the height of his photographic power. Italy was ripe with photographic potential. Scholar William Arrowsmith, who edited the volume of writing and photography, noted in his foreword that, "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&hellip" Both the Study of the Spanish-Speaking People and Image of Italy files provide a rich treasure of little-known photography.

Hats on chair, Brazos River Authority Tour, 1956

© Russell Lee Photograph Collection, Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin

For a privileged few the 1930s Great Depression did not disrupt the good life. A close-up in this series of the facial artist indicates that the subjects acknowledged this photography, although it seems candid. From the beginning Lee sometimes worked with what photojournalists later called the &ldquoposed/unposed&rdquo method in which the subjects cooperated to give natural-looking pictures by following their normal routines for the camera. 1935/36.

© Russell Lee Photograph Collection, Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin

Lee was an active photographer for more than three decades after the FSA. There has been one significant survey of his career (F. Jack Hurley, 1978), long out of print. Linda Peterson and I are grateful for the opportunity that the Center for American History and its supporters have provided to offer a broad selection of Lee's personal files in Russell Lee Photographs, all of it beyond the FSA, much of it not known to the viewing public.

Russell Lee, 1903-1986 was dissatisfied with his artistic accomplishments, instead, Lee bought himself a camera and began taking pictures. During the early 1930s he took photographs of the destitute and homeless, and of the artistic community in Woodstock, New York, where he lived. Lee pioneered the "photo essay" approach to photography, producing photographic documentaries. In 1936, he joined Roy Stryker's Resettlement Administration Project, which became the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1937. The Project's directive was to use photography to create a social awareness of America's rural problems during the depression years.

On behalf of the FSA, Lee traveled to Texas, New Mexico, California, and Arizona. His most famous portrayals are of people pursuing their everyday lives in San Augustine, Texas (1939) and Pie Town, New Mexico (1940). He was a pioneer in the use of flash for indoor photography. During World War II, Lee photographed airstrips for the U.S. Air Transport Command in the Far East. He spent some time documenting the living and working conditions of coal miners for the Interior Department between 1946 and 1947.

The majority of the photographs in this collection were taken at a time when Russell Lee was actively photographing for the FSA. The photographs in this collection cover three projects in Arizona that are typical of those supported by the FSA. They include both indoor and outdoor prints, and portray the goals of FSA to capture everyday reality. The projects are: Agua Fria Migratory Farm Workers Camp the Arizona Part-Time Farms, Chandler Unit, Maricopa County and Casa Grande Valley Farms, Pinal County. All of the Lee photographs are dated 1940, with the exception of a print not belonging to the above sets, from Cairns General Hospital, and dated 1942 the Albee prints are dated 1942, the Lange print, 1938, and the unattributed print is also dated 1942.

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