WE ARE SO ACCUSTOMED TO SEEING PHOTOGRAPHS from the Great Depression in black and white that color images are almost unimaginable. From the 1950s back, our history is largely rooted in a monochromatic world, muted variables of black and gray—at least according to our history textbooks and newspapers. Look at the Depression era photos of Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks and others—and what we are used to seeing is black and white. Even John Steinbeck’s Depression era novel “Grapes of Wrath” describe the land and situations as bleak. I guess what I am saying is, it’s hard to imagine the Dust Bowl and abject poverty in color. Until now, and the following images of Russell Lee. There is something about color images from that particular time period which brings their misery and plight a little closer to home.
Russell Lee (1903, Ottawa, Illinois - 1986, Austin, Texas) was an American photographer and photojournalist. His work was in both black and white and in color.
Some background on the FSA: Some years after the collapse of the stock market and America’s economic system in 1929, not unlike what we are going through today, The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was founded as a way to help struggling farmers rebuild. One of the offshoots of that was the photography program, which was started to document and record the poor plight of the farmer and, as they said, “to introduce America to Americans.”
Russell Lee had trained as a chemical engineer, and in the fall of 1936 became a member of the team of photographers assembled under Mr. Roy Stryker for this federally sponsored FSA documentation project. Lee is responsible for some of the iconic images produced during that period, including photographic studies of San Augustine, Texas in 1939, and Pie Town, New Mexico in 1940.
After the FSA was defunded in 1943, and after his own service in World War II, Lee continued to work under Stryker, producing public relations photographs for Standard Oil of New Jersey. Some 80,000 of those photographs have been donated by Exxon Corporation to the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
Lee moved to Austin,Texas in 1947 and became the first instructor of photography at the University of Texas in 1965. He died in 1986.
An AM repost from 3/2/09.