The Photographs of Russell Lee

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“We could picture the frontier which has unalterably molded the American character and make frontier life vivid and understandable.”—Russell Lee

“It’s hard to think of any photographer for whom a more plausible claim can be made that he recorded the entire life of the United States (at least, for people in the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution) at a particular historical moment—what Toqueville did as a social observer, or Dos Passos as a novelist, or John Gunther as a journalist.”—Nicholas Lemann on Russell Lee

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The more than 175,000 photographs in the Library of Congress’ collection from the Resettlement Administration (RA, 1935–1937), Farm Security Administration (FSA, 1937–1942) and Office of War Information (OWI, 1942–1944) provide a unique and comprehensive view of American life from 1935 to 1944. This government photography project, headed by Roy E. Stryker, employed a small group of individuals who would become some of the 20th-century’s best-known photographers, such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein and Carl Mydans. Initially conceived to document government loans to farmers and their resettlement in suburban communities, the scope of the project expanded to create a visual record of agricultural workers in the South, Midwest and Western United States. Later, Stryker’s photographers recorded both rural and urban centres throughout the country as the nation prepared for World War II. Photographers were sent on assignment to specific regions of the country with guidelines from Stryker to “shoot everyday life;” as Ben Shahn said, “we just took pictures that cried out to be taken.” In 1941, Marion Post Wolcott was documenting migrant workers in Florida, while Jack Delano was photographing African American inmates in a Greene Country, Georgia, jail. Russell Lee sent Stryker film of a gold-mining town in Colorado in 1942, while John Vachon was documenting the farmers hit hard by the Depression in the Midwest.

Each of the volumes in this series presents 50 striking and often experimental images by an individual FSA/OWI photographer. While most are black and white negatives, colour transparencies do exist and are among the lesser-known images in the collection. These are included in select volumes to give a complete sense of the photographer’s work. In addition, each volume features a Preface by W. Ralph Eubanks, former Director of Publishing, Library of Congress. Together, the volumes recreate for the viewer a picture of life prior to World War II and communicate a foreboding sense of the changes that would follow.

Russell Lee (1903–1986) left a career as a chemical engineer to become a painter and later a photographer. In 1936, he was hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographic project, where he created some of the most iconic images produced by the FSA, including photographic studies of San Augustine, Texas, and Pie Town, New Mexico, as well as the eviction of Japanese Americans from the West Coast in 1942.

Author biographies

Series editor Amy Pastan  is an independent editor, photo researcher, writer, and book producer based in Washington, D.C. In addition to producing volumes for the Library of Congress and other cultural institutions, she writes features for the Web and provides content for film and digital media.

Table of contents

  1. Preface by W. Ralph Eubanks, former director of publishing, Library of Congress
  2. Photographs
  3. Image credits