University of Arizona

Russell Lee Photograph Collection

 

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.