A Guide to the Russell Lee Papers, 1903-1992 (Bulk: 1936-1965)
Russell Lee was born on July 21, 1903, in Ottawa, Illinois. His parents' divorce, the death of his mother, and supervision by three successive guardians created an unsettled childhood for Lee. In 1917 he was sent to Culver Military Academy (CMA), which provided some stability in his life. He attended CMA until 1921, then enrolled at Lehigh University, in Pennsylvania. He graduated in 1925 with a degree in chemical engineering and joined the Certainteed Products Company in Marseilles, Illinois.
In 1927 he married painter Doris Emrick. The following year, Lee was transferred to Kansas City, where he became so bored with his job he resigned to pursue painting. After moving to San Francisco in 1929, the Lees resettled a year later in an artists colony in Woodstock, New York. Lee subsequently became increasingly frustrated with his limitations as a painter. In 1935, at the suggestion of a friend, he bought his first camera and his enthusiasm for photography quickly grew. He explored the technical aspects of the craft, experimenting with developing chemicals, exposure speeds, and flash photography techniques.
Lee began taking documentary photographs in Woodstock in 1935 and went to Pennsylvania to photograph bootleg coal miners. The winter of 1935 found him in New York City documenting the poor and their living conditions. Shortly after, he acquired an agent and began selling his work to magazines. In 1936, Lee joined the photographic staff of the Resettlement Administration, later renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA), where he worked under the creative supervision of Roy Stryker, director of photographic projects. His colleagues included Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, and Carl Mydans. During his FSA years, Lee traveled throughout the United States, documenting life in rural and urban communities. He developed a flash technique that enabled him to take innovative and candid interior photographs. He also specialized in taking pictures in series, most notably those shot in Pie Town, New Mexico, and San Augustine, Texas.
The long periods away from his wife while working for the FSA contributed to their divorce in 1938. On assignment in New Orleans the same year, he met Jean Smith, a Dallas journalist. They began working together and eventually married.
In 1943, Lee received a captain's commission in the Air Transport Command (ATC). He traveled military transport routes taking aerial photographs, visiting the West Indies, North Africa, India, and China. Lee was promoted to major and received the Air Medal.
About a year after leaving the ATC, in 1946, Lee was hired by the Department of the Interior's Coal Mines Administration to take photographs for a major report on health and safety conditions in bituminous coal mines.
The Lees moved to Austin, Texas, in 1947. At the request of his former FSA chief, Roy Stryker, Lee worked for Standard Oil of New Jersey, documenting the oil industry at home and overseas. Lee continued with industrial photography projects throughout the 1950's, visiting Saudi Arabia and Europe. He contributed to Fortune magazine and was an associate staff member of the prestigious Magnum photographic cooperative.
Between 1949 and 1962, Lee conducted a photographic workshop at the University of Missouri. In 1950, Lee worked with The University of Texas on a study of Spanish-speaking people in Texas. He contributed to the Texas Observer and between 1952 and 1957 covered Ralph Yarborough's election campaigns. His coverage of a 1956 Texas primary campaign appeared in The New York Times. The September, 1961, issue of Texas Quarterly published 150 of some 4,000 photographs taken during a two-and-a-half month visit to Italy.
In 1965, The University of Texas at Austin presented an exhibition of Lee's photographs and he was invited to join the university's art faculty as an instructor in photography. He taught until his retirement in 1973. Russell Lee died on August 28, 1986.
Related Readings: Hurley, F. Jack. Russell Lee: Photographer. Dobbs Ferry: Morgan and Morgan, 1978, and ------------ Just Before the War: Urban America as seen by Photographers of the Farm Security Administration. New York: October House, 1968.
This collection of photographs, correspondence, personal and legal documents, artifacts, paintings, and publications ranges in date from 1901-1991 (bulk dates 1936-1942). It has been arranged into the following series: I. Correspondence, II. Personal Documents, III. Legal Documents, IV. President’s Commission on Coal, V. Awards, VI. Exhibits and Publications, VII. Interviews, VII. Clippings, IX. Artifacts, X. Photographs of Lee, and XI. Photographs by Lee.
Letters from Jack Hurley to Russell Lee, regarding Hurley’s book, Russell Lee: Photographer, comprise the bulk of the correspondence series. Three of Russell Lee’s FSA field notebooks, which were used to write captions for his FSA photographs, are located in the Personal Documents series. Other personal documents include Lee’s mother’s diary (1990-1901), the family Bible, and several of Jean Lee’s writing assignments (1967). Legal documents include divorce and marriage records, passports, and Lee’s grandmother’s will. Of particular note are paintings by Lee which pre-date his interest in photography, and three of Lee’s cameras, along with their accessories, such as a hand held flash and various viewfinders.
The seventy-eight photographs of Lee, dating from his childhood through his early eighties, were taken by unknown photographers and by well known photographers, such as Ave Bonar. Some are portraits, many are candid photographs.
The three-hundred fifty-two photographs in this collection taken by Lee provide an overview of his entire career. The bulk of the professional photographs taken by Lee include work from his years with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), from 1936 to 1942. One hundred and thirty of the FSA prints are rare, vintage prints. Other photographs include those taken while he was serving with the Air Transport Command (ATC) from 1942 through 1945, and documentary work undertaken for the Coal Mines Administration in 1946, arranged in chronological order.
Series I: Correspondence (1918-1990, bulk 1972-1979)
Arranged into subseries for correspondence to Russell Lee and to Jean Lee, this material is filed in alphabetical order by the name of the correspondent. The bulk of the correspondence to Russell Lee is comprised of letters from Jack Hurley regarding their collaboration on the book, Russell Lee: Photographer.
Series II : Personal Documents (1881-ca1975)
This series contains three of Russell Lee’s FSA field notebooks (late 1930s-early 1940s), with his notes which were later used to write captions for his FSA photographs. After a certain point in time, Jean Lee took over the duty of gathering this information and maintaining notebooks for this purpose. The notebooks maintained by Jean Lee are presumed to have been discarded by Ms. Lee after Russell Lee’s death. Other materials in this series include family documents such as Russell Lee’s mother’s diary from 1900-1901, the family Bible dating from 1881, as well as some of Jean Lee’s writing assignments dating from 1967.
Series III : Legal Documents (1914-1979, bulk 1953-1986)
Documents including and relating to the will of Russell Lee’s maternal grandmother, Eva Werner, comprise the first subseries of this series, and relate in part to a half-sister of Lee’s. Other documents include a divorce decree for Russell Lee and his first wife, birth and marriage certificates for Russell and Jean Lee, passports for both Lees, and financial records related to a household employee.
Series IV : President’s Commission on Coal (1978-1979, n.d.)
Correspondence, financial documents, and guidelines and working papers comprise this series which relates not to Russell Lee’s work with the Coal Mine Administration (dates), but to his role as consultant to the President’s Commission on Coal in the late 1970s.
Series V: Awards (1919-1986)
This series includes some of the awards given to Russell Lee throughout his career, arranged in chronological order, beginning with one from his high school, Culver Military Academy, dating from 1919-1920. Lee’s World War II Air Medal and other WWII decorations, as well a Resolution commemorating Lee’s efforts on behalf of the Coal Mine Administration (1947) are also included in this series. A Texas State Senate Resolution presented to Jean Lee in 1986 in memory of Russell Lee is also present.
Series VI : Exhibits and Publications (1947-1986)
This series includes catalogs, a booklet, and a poster related to exhibits of Russell Lee’s works (one exhibit by the Coal Mine Administration in 1947, one by the University of Texas at Austin in 1965, and one by Texas A and M in 1986). Articles related Lee’s work in general complete this series.
Series VII : Interviews (1964)
This series is comprised of one transcript with corrections and edits from an interview of Russell Lee by Richard Doud, on June 2, 1964.
Series VIII : Clippings (1945-1992)
The clippings in this series relate to Russell Lee’s photographic career, and appear to have been maintained by both Russell and Jean Lee. Clippings regarding Lee’s death were maintained by Jean Lee.
Series IX : Artifacts
The bulk of this series is comprised of three of Russell Lee’s cameras and their accessories, such as his hand held flash and various viewfinders. Also included is Lee’s Leitz 35mm enlarger, and his cap from his tenure with the Air Transport Command.
Series X : Paintings by Lee (ca. 1930-1935)
The three oil paintings in this series are not dated, but were created during the early 1930s, when Lee studied painting in Woodstock, NY. A friend suggested Lee buy a camera and take photographs to improve his painting technique; Lee did so and quickly became interested in photography. The painting of the man in this series remains unfinished as a result of Lee’s shift in artistic focus.
Series XI : Photographs of Lee (1904-1984)
The Collection contains 77 photographs of Russell Lee, the largest group known to exist. This group of photographs range from portraits by unknown studio photographers, to well known photographers such as Ave Bonar. Russell Lee is portrayed both in snapshots by anonymous photographers and candid photographs by military photographers in the Air Transport Command.
Series XII : Photographs by Lee (ca. 1936-1960)
Arranged in chronological order by following Lee’s career, this series consists of three-hundred fifty-two photographs. Two-hundred forty-eight of these photographs by Russell Lee were taken for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) between 1936 and 1942. The gems of this part of the collection are the 130 vintage prints; most are complete with captions typed on the back by FSA staff. Making up the balance of the FSA group are 94 modern prints, 6 panels from the 1965 retrospective at the University of Texas, and 18 study prints. Every FSA photograph in the Collection has been identified by its Library of Congress negative number and its FSA caption information.
The balance of the photographs in the Collection provide the researcher with a comprehensive overview of Russell Lee’s entire career, including his other government work: 16 photographs were taken during his commission during World War II with the Air Transport Command, and 37 photographs are from his tenure with the Coal Mines Administration.
Russell Lee’s post government work is also well-represented in the Collection, including 33 photographs taken for a variety of publications after World War II in Texas where he photographed and spent most of his life. Other commercial work is also represented in his photographs of Italy for a photo essay in the Summer 1961 issue of Texas Quarterly (5 photographs), and his work for Standard Oil New Jersey/ARAMCO (6 photographs). The Collection also contains 8 photographs taken during the winter of 1935-1936, prior to Russell Lee joining the staff of the FSA, and one image of unidentified location or date.
Open for research.
Russell Lee Papers, Witliff Gallery of Southwestern and Mexican Photography/Texas State University-San Marcos.
Donations since 1986 by Jean Lee and Bill Wittliff.
Processed by Mary Jane Appel and Amanda York, 1999, and Carla Ellard and Amanda York, 2000.
Detailed Description of the Collection