Russell Lee: The Honest Camera

Terminal 3

May 2013 - July 2013

Russell Lee: The Honest Camera

American photographer and photojournalist Russell Lee was born in Ottawa, Illinois, in 1903 and earned a degree in chemical engineering from Lehigh University in 1925. Lee later decided to leave his position as a chemist to become a painter. Originally Lee's photographs were an aid to improve his draftsmanship and enhance his paintings, but soon he embraced photography as his primary medium to document people and the environment. Lee acquired his first camera, a 35mm Contax, in 1935 and started documenting the harsh realities of the Great Depression.

In 1936, Lee was invited by Roy Stryker to join a team of photographers, including Gordon Parks, Mary Post Wolcott, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Esther Bubley, at the federally sponsored Resettlement Administration, which was renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1937. The FSA, a government-relief New Deal program, was created to assist poor farmers during the Great Depression and was charged with the task of chronicling, publicizing, and educating Americans about the nation's social and economic conditions. Lee worked for the FSA from 1935 to 1942 and traveled around the country photographing sugarcane farmers, cotton and fruit pickers, and migrant farm workers; he was eager to improve his skills and harness the medium of photography as a tool for social justice. Roy Stryker's documentary team created 77,000 images. Many of the images were published in newspapers, books, and magazines. The roots of photojournalism began with the work of Lee and his colleagues at the FSA.

Lee's chemical engineering skills enhanced his technical knowledge of photography. He was able to mix his own developing chemicals and push film beyond its normal ratings. He also explored in his work the technical advances of flash photography.

Lee, who is best known for his work with the FSA and for his technically excellent images, was also admired for his compassion for the plight of his subjects. Throughout his nearly fifty-year career, his candor imbued trust, enabling him to capture the dignity of the human spirit.

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