He Was A Camera

Russell Lee is best known for his enduring images of American life during the Great Depression, but his rarely seen later photographs—many of them from Texas—show an artist whose powers of observation only sharpened with time.

A YEAR AFTER HE BOUGHT HIS FIRST CAMERA, Russell Lee commenced the assignment that has ensured his immortality, working alongside fellow icons Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to create the Farm Security Administration’s gritty photographic portrait of the Great Depression. Lee’s legendary stint with the FSA ended shortly after World War II began, and there history pretty much closes the book on a career that in fact was just getting started. A resident of Austin from 1947 until his death, in 1986, Lee continued to fulfill the promise he had shown as an uncannily talented tyro, taking on subjects that ranged from the gleaming new oil fields of Saudi Arabia to far more exotic Texas political rallies. Now a spectacular new book from the University of Texas Press, Russell Lee Photographs —the first major tome on Lee in a generation—places in perspective this rarely seen but brilliant second act, most of it unfolding on the Texas stage that so engaged Lee’s storied powers of observation. Trained as a painter, Lee composed his frames with an unerring eye, but his real gift was a piercing insight into the emotional story lines—and their often cryptic, ironic subplots—that teem beneath the surface of our lives. An extended family of Hispanic migrant workers loading their truck becomes a multigenerational group portrait, less a mirror of their faces than a complex, prismatic rendering of their hopes and anxieties. JFK and LBJ share a dais during their Texas campaign swing, the latter confiding to the former in a vignette dark and conspiratorial enough for Oliver Stone. Elders in Smithwick assemble for a picnic after sprucing up their town cemetery, a communal ritual transformed into their last supper, a valediction for a vanishing way of life. Instead of the decisive moment, Lee gives us a much more magical documentary realism, those rare moments when his subjects reveal their ineffable connections: to one another, the world around them, and the past and future.

Top of the page: A couple walking down a street in a new housing addition, San Angelo, 1949.

Top left: Target practice at the Cypress Gun and Rifle Club, Cypress, 1962.
Top right: Young cowboys at the Austin Livestock Show, Austin, 1954.
Bottom left: Shearing sheep at a ranch, Sonora, 1949.
Bottome right: Ralph Yarborough campaign onlookers, Mount Vernon, 1954.

Left: A young man on a street corner, Rockdale, 1951.
Top right: Ralph Yarborough campaigning, Paris, 1954.
Bottom right: Sam Rayburn, Price Daniel, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson at a rally, 1960.

Top left: The interior of a one-bedroom apartment, El Paso, 1949.
Bottom left: A family moving from Texas to Wyoming for work in the sugar beet fields, San Angelo, 1949.
Right: Community supper at a cemetery cleaning party, Smithwick, 1949.

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