Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 29, No. 2, Spring 2009, pp. 162-163
Russell Lee, more than any of his compadres in the Farm Security Administration (FSA), created the visual history and thus our collective memory of the Great Depression; and it is fitting that the University of Texas Press in its "Focus on American History Series" has published a long-overdue book of Lee's images from the Russell Lee photography collection at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for American History, particularly since the Art Department at UT hired Lee in the mid-1960s to be its first professor of photography.
The late John Szarkowski, legendary director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, provided a foreword filled with the kind of lefr-handed compliments Lee fans have come to expect from the critical community. However, J. B Colson, Professor Emeritus of Journalism at UT, in his personal and knowledgeable introduction, cogently states what future photo analysts will echo: "Lee has been credited for bringing flash to FSA documentary work, resulting in pictures that would otherwise have been missed .... He mastered some fundamental photographic approaches: strong, complex graphic design with large-format clarity, for which Walker Evans is more noted; sad and sensitive moments, which are seen as Dorothea Lange's legacy, e.g., 'Migrant Mother'; and precise timing of multifaceted action, for which Cartier-Bresson has the premier credit. He produced images equal to the best work of more honored photographers . .. " [emphasis mine]. Colson's piece, covering Lee's career and featuring charming and revelatory anecdotes from their long friendship, is filled with previously unpublished facts; and, as a bonus throughout the text, Colson has placed thirty-four photos by Lee, which are appropriate to the content.