found living with his family by the side of the road
near Raymondsville, Texas, in 1937, were called
bush-hogs.” Photo by Carl Mydans
Narrative by Bruce Berman
Almost always, when photo researchers and academic scholars refer to a Dorothea Lange photograph with people, they mention the “body language” that Lange so brilliantly captured. Usually they mention that Lange had Polio when she was a child and attribute this occurrence to her ability to “read” her subject’s body language.
This is puzzling to most aficianados of good photography, especially photographers themselves.
What good photo reportage doesn’t recognize their subject’s “body language?”
Further, as any photographer knows, most if not all photographers who work in the world of photographing strangers, use their own body language as a sort of introduction card. How else do you “break the ice?”
came to work in the fruit and vegetable harvests.”
Coachella Valley, California,
by Dorothea Lange, 1937
Dorothea Lange, as always, was interested in more than the facts of a situation. She wanted intimacy with “the other.” This man, obviously wary, is relaxed enough to put up his foot, a sure sign of trust. The captioning of the photo -hers- speaks volumes. He had had a station in life, even though it was rented. Now he only had his truck, his labor, his -and his family (background in the shadows)- and his footlocker full belongings.
Arthur Rotstein was one of the first photographers hired by the FSA (Farm Security Administration) in 1936, although his first job there was not to shoot but to create a darkroom for the newly formed Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration (RA). Rothstein was the first photographer sent out by Roy Stryker, the visionary behind the FSA photo section and an economist-turned-editor who headed the Photo Unit. Rothstein had been a student of Stryker’s at Colombia University where Stryker taught and worked with his colleague Rex Tugwell who later helped form the Resettlement Administration and was an insider in FDR’s New Deal planning.
Daragh Vaughn from Dublin Ireland at McDonald’s in Truth or Consequences, NM. He had had surgery for a genetic deformity. He already had the same surgery on his other hand. “To top that,” he says in his Irish brogue, “I’m a piano player!”
In 1936 John Vachon was a “late” FSA photographer. His original job was to catalog other photographer’s images. He was, at 21, a “filing clerk,” for the FSA library and had little intention of being a photographer. He needed a job.
By 1937, Vachon had become completely familiar with the FSA, its Director, Roy Stryker and the works of the of the FSA photographers.
Marion Post Wolcott was one of the later Farm Security Farm Security Administration ( FSA) photographers and went on to be one of the Office of War Information photographers (OWI) under the direction of her former boss, at FSA, Roy Stryker. She was unique among FSA photographers, showing the extremes of the country’s rich and poor in the late 30’s, and addressed the issues of race relations with intensity and depth.
Wolcott’s creativity and her unfailing perseverance resulted in powerful documentary images: farmers harvesting the tobacco fields in Lexington, KY; affluent spectators at the races in Florida; coal miners and their families throughout West Virginia and farm laborers in North Carolina and Mississippi.
Jack Delano, was one of the group of photographers who fanned out throughout the United States in the 1930’s and 40’s on behalf of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration (FSA).
Delano was not as well known as the other F.S.A. photographers, who included Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee. Mr. Delano created images of people and places of surpassing elegance and empathy. Certain of his beautifully detailed, crisp black-and-white prints show the Evans influence, but his work also had the verve and deep insight of Lange and the technical curiosity and skill of Lee.
Latino, Hispanic, Mexican-American, Spanish, all were terms used in the 1930 and 1940’s when referring to Spanish-speaking people, particularly those who lived in the former Mexican States of Neew Mexico and Texas. When Russell Lee began photographing in this community the term Hispanic or Mexican-American was most commonly used. Now, these terms are all used, more or less interchangeably, and refer to the predominantly Spanish-speaking peoples of the border states that had been part of Mexico until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Guadalupe_Hidalgo) tore the states away from Mexico in 1848.
Russell Lee, as a photographer and as a person was interested in the “Hispanic,” community. In it, many historians of his work have concluded, Lee found the verve he so treasured in his “subjects,” and he found a story that he, socially concerned photographer that he was, related to and wanted to tell. The story of the “Hispanics,” of the old Mexican states was one he felt had been seriously under reported. With the encouragement, first of Roy Stryker at the FSA, and then, later, from George I. Sanchez (http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2384/Sanchez-George-I-1906-1972.html) at the University of Texas at Austin, Lee told this story, starting in the late 1930’s, in his photographs and writings, for the rest of his life.
In his travels in Texas and New Mexico, Lee was aware of the history of this community and the relationship they had, historically, to the former Spanish Crown lands. After the Mexican-American War of 1848, many of the people of the Republic of Mexico found themselves under a new government, The United States. However, in what is now known as the “Southwest,” the Spanish-speaking community managed to keep the core of their community together and the language, customs and culture of the oldest residents of these former Mexican States stayed remarkably intact and remains so to this day.
In his writings and in conversations, Lee expressed admiration for this community.
Just about the time you think you’ve seen all there is to see about the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the photographers from the Historical Section, up pops another one!
Somewhere in mid 1937 Roy Stryker, Director of the “Unit,” made a conscious decision to start showing more than just poverty and the negative affects of the Depression, various natural disasters and the dire conditions of America’s farms and the people who worked them. The Resettlement Administration (RA) was tasked with convincing Americans that the government’s programs were needed, were effective and that it was money well spent. Little wonder that the initial efforts of the Historical Unit, in the beginning, concentrated on what was causing the rural displacement of tens of thousands beleaguered Americans, showing everything from the Dust Bowl of the Midwest and West to the displacement of massive flooding, overuse of the land and changing cultural realities, in the South. This was the FSA’s original mission, started a year earlier. But Stryker knew that the problems of rural America were not limited to rural America and that the great displacement and cultural change of America was affecting all parts of the country. He revisited his mission and expanded it to show more than just problems, but to include a hitherto unseen view of how all Americans lived. He assigned his photographers to the task of broadening their coverage and the “Unit” went from a narrow and propagandistic reportage arm of the government to an overall recorder of “American Life.”
When Russell Lee and the other FSA photographers set off into America in the 1930s their social concern wasn’t hidden and, in fact, Roy Stryker, the Director and Editor of the of the Resettlement Administration’s (RA) Historical branch, encouraged his shooters to find various minority groups and show their life style and their condition in our society. He wanted “full disclosure,” for the good and the bad but he he wanted these groups to be shown as part of the “American family.” Although the FSA’s mission was to show rural conditions in the environmentally and economically challenged Depression era, he was aware of what the impact of these photos would be. In effect, the FSA was part of the ongoing and increasing movement for justice and Civil Rights. How these groups were visually described and labeled, in an era before the confusion of politicaly correct labeling had become an issue, might not have been how these groups labeled themselves.
From St. Louis to Wall Street to hangin’ with Hemingway and, finally, to the Farm Security Adminsitration, Walker Evans methodically fused reportage with the art esthetic.
Here’s a short video of the great Walker Evans.
By the 1940s, Russell Lee, Roy Stryker and the remaining elements of the FSA (Farm Security Administration) had begun to move onto the next great era of America: World War. The Depression was beginning to wane, the result of an uptick in industrial production gearing for war.
For Lee and company that meant a slight shift in message and a growing modernness of style, more mobile because of the use of smaller cameras and the sheer volume of serious photography being done in the “internet of its era,” the new “picture magazine” of Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Collier’s, etc.
The last stages of FSA saw the focus and imagery of the FSA turn from exposing the depth of wretchedness to reform and reclamation during the Depression to a message of growing prosperity and recovery, a message that supported the idea that America “was back!”
If you are shooting for the Government there is a reason you are on the payroll. Your “boss” wants you to support a message. The message can be benign or insidious but make no mistake, you will deliver the “message” or you will be freelancing.
No image better personifies this message than Lee’s 1941 image of five African-American boys, outfitted in their finest, posing proudly for Lee’s Rollieflex (the irony of the “Rollie” being a German camera made in Lower Saxony was probably not lost on photographers of the war). In fact, the Rollie and the Leica were the two new technological “stars” coming into use during the war, both using roll film, faster to operate than previous cameras, especially because the speeds of film had also inceased to a whopping ASA of 125. Both were German manufactured. However, the main work horse for most press photographers -especially the military Signal Corps shooters- was the Speed Graphic, big (it took a 4″ X 5″ sheet of film, one sheet at a time), cumbersome and slow to use, but American made.
Even while we fought the war the era of imports (specifically from Germany and Japan) had begun. The full deluge couldn’t and didn’t happen until the war was over and the conquered Axis countries were occupied and their manufacturing bases had begun to produce again, this time, fully modernized and aimed at export to, mainly -insert irony- the United States.
Dorothea Lange not only photographed the people who were suffering the disaster of the Depression, she got to know them.
Her captions, written and sent to Roy Stryker at the FSA (either with her undeveloped film -which was rare- or with her developed film (she was the only FSA shooter allowed to do so) often were mini Short Stories.
In the photograph above, for example, in 39 words Lange hits four of the five “5Ws and the H” that are the staple of good journalistic writing. The “How” is obvious: California by car.
Lange’s intimacy was a keystone of her work. The relaxed body language of the migrant father, the careful posing of six people (never easy and especially so with young children), the near “offering” of the baby to the photographer, a metaphorical gesture that Lange was undoubtedly aware of, all indicate a more than momentary photo shoot. She was engaged and she, like any good photographer, was dropping the barrier between subjects and “official person.” Her work indicated familiarity and, to a degree, intimacy.
This giant roadrunner is on Interstate 10, west of Las Cruces, New Mexico. In Russell Lee’s day this was highway U.S. 70/80. Lee traveled in a 1930’s Ford, often with his wife Jean. A photographer on assignment today can leave, for example, Houston, in the morning, fly to El Paso, rent a car, drive out toe area where this spot is, photograph his job, transmit it from his laptop and Mobile Hot Spot, stop for, say some great enchiladas in Las Cruces on the reverse trip, get on the plane and be in Houston by mid evening.
For Lee, getting to this spot, between Deming and and Las Cruces, leaving from, say, his last stop, (perhaps, El Paso, fifty miles away) would take a full day. Top speed limits in the 1930s were 45 to 50 mph . Speed limit signs, in the U.S. were not legally required until the mid 1920s.
There weren’t any Interstate Highways when FSA and Russell Lee worked America in the 1930s. The “Eisenhower Highway” as the Interstates were called, made travel fast and removed from the towns it bypassed, the very places where the FSA shooters did their best work.
Would they have plyed these highways like they plyed the two lane (and three lane) roads of their time?
They would have flown to a “hub,” rented a car for $75/day, stayed at a $65-100/night motel and used up their $50/day per diem as they worked to show the outstanding results of the government programs that have now bloated into a national way of life and debt.
Seriously, would Lee and Lange, Walker, Rothstein, and Delano have been able to do the work they did in jet set mode?
Russell Lee went through Roswell, New Mexico, in the 1930s often.
I have gone through Roswell often since the early 1980s.
It is a city of 50,000 people and is a flatland, part of the Great Plains, just out of the Sacramento Mountains. If you’re coming to Roswell from the west, the mountains, you get the feeling you’re starting to head into America’s Heartland, the flat places, the farmlands.
If you’re coming from the east, from Texas or Oklahoma, one gets the feeling you’re starting to head to the wild lands of the west. The spaces get wider, the horizon is farther off, the arithmetic of the geography becomes basic. You look west and you see a wide and high mountain range. In the winter the Capitain Mountain’s top is covered in snow. Beyond there is the endless mountains of New Mexico and Arizona, Utah and California. Roswell is the thinning of the land, eventually leading to the great deserts beyond, or the ending of the youthful upheaval of the wild west, heading to the old lands of the east.
This little town, lying on the cusp between old and new, Roswell is, therefore, sort of a Border Town, a place between eco systems and cultures.
Editor’s note: Name withheld to protect the subject.
Ex-cockfighter holds “The Old Man,” his name for his 11 year old fighting cock. He is standing in the yard of his home in Chapparal, New Mexico where he raises and maintains fighting cocks. Cockfighting in New Mexico was outlawed on July 15,2007 .
This man has been raising and competing with his fighting cocks since he was 12 years old. The Old Man is a ten time winner in cockfighting competitions.
The cockfighting man no longer participates or competes. He continues to raise his birds “for the love of them.”
Construction on the the Eddy County, New Mexico Courthouse was begun in 1891. Up to $30,000 was allotted for its construction. The brands of cattle ranches from the region were etched around the west doors in 1940 and have been maintained there since.
This is not a pickup from Russell Lee’s FSA era. It’s a ’51-’54 “Jimmy.”
Lee was still shooting. He had completed his work on the The Study Of The Spanish Speaking People Of Texas and had settled into his life in Austin, teaching at the Art Department at UT.
He still was shooting and traveling the highways on assignment.
This truck and the two lane highway along it is of the era when there weren’t Interstate Highways (1955), massive franchises, massive government and plastic culture. Not long after this came “cool.” America wasn’t cool before the mid fifties. All the way back, through the Depression, back to the teens, America was agrarian, quieter, smellier, simpler. And tougher.
Lee -and the FSA-ers- not only documented the Depression in the 30s and its affect on agriculture, but he and they photographed the end of a major era, the second era of the automobile (the first being horseless carriage and horse trails). America was about to enter the third era (the Interstate, the jet, wide spread fashion, work at desks).
Relic #91 is one more gravestone along the highway of the second era.
Am I “waxing” nostalgic?
Of course. This whole project has waxed nostalgic!
Cadillac Ranch is a public art installation and sculpture in Amarillo, Texas. It was created in 1974 by Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Doug Michels, who were a part of the art group Ant Farm. Cadillac Ranch is currently located along Interstate 40 and is clearly visible to all cross country visitors. It was originally located in a wheat field, but in 1997 the installation was quietly moved by a local contractor two miles (three kilometers) to a cow pasture on the edge of the town of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle.
Here’s the weird thing: there really are (at least) two Americas out there (the phrase came from someone who isn’t either and will, hopefully just fade away). And this has been going on for a long time.
What was the reason the W.P.A. created the Farm Security Admibnistration which created the “Historical Section,” that employed Lee, Lange, Evans, Rothstein, Parks, and the whole rest of the FSA shooters?
“To explain to the cities the need for the New Deal programs in rural America,” as Nancy Woods in In This Proud Land says.
And here we have 2012. It’s not exactly the same mix of “rural v. urban,” but it is some kind of mix between the equitied and the struggling and the struggling are out there, and they think they are living the right way and the other America, the one now represented by Hope and Change thinks the other half are a bunch of rubes, or, as one famous non rube said, “They’re clinging to their guns and religion.”
Well yeah and always will.
The question is, Lost American, what are you clinging to?
On Highway 60 between Ft. Sumner and Vaughn, semi-ghost.Still has a working post office.
Excerpt from the Lee Diary
by Bruce Berman
Yeso is on highway U.S. 60 between Vaughn and Fort Sumner. It is now almost a Ghost Town.
Yeso. The word means “gypsum” in Spanish. The Sante Fe railroad established this town and after 1906 it became a trading center for ranchers and farmers. The town has less than ten residents. I lost (misplaced?) my lens filter in Yeso. I searched for it in the tall grass for over an hour. When I finally found it I screamed a happy and loud “Yahoo!” Several people came out onto the porch of the only building in Yeso that seemed to have people.
Maybe they all came out of the house to see what the ruckus was about.
It’s not every day that one can bring an entire town out into the streets.
I snatched up my filter, got in the car, got going again, looked back waved at the still shocked people on the porch.
Then there is another road on Russell Lee’s Road. It is the road not often described, the road that is deeply there and I suspect always was. It is the road less traveled and it is the underbelly of, not only New Mexico, but America today. Looking at the road of Lee and the other FSA photographers of the 1930s, one would imagine that the grind of the never-ending depression was something that people were waiting out, that the “hard times,” were something that was being endured until better times arrived.
But, after awhile, hard times dig down deep into the soul of a country and leave scars and damage and incapacity.
The role of the FSA was to uplift. The images and words of the FSA were meant to show that the government had come to the rescue and that, given enough time and money, the government would fix things, was fixing things.
But, as previously stated in on this web site, for all the millions of dollars spent in the 1930s on programs to uplift the society from the Great Depression, unemployment never went down significantly. Like now. It hovered around 20% throughout the 1930s (this statistic included those still looking for work but unable to find it. Today, those who are looking but do not find work are not included or tabulated. They don’t exist according to the Dept. of Labor).
Our times have seen boom and bust and boom again and bust again. But another form of depression has been gaining steam: the loss of mission and the loss of belief. Throughout the history of the country we have lived the conceit that we were one –The One, so to speak- and that we were special and that we were the best of nations and people.
Some of us still believe this to be the case but many don’t. Can’t.
In 1930’s America, as in 2011 America, violence was a public problem. As the depression deepened, the crime rate rose. The main increase in crime came in the category of armed robbery. The big news in crime, in the 1930’s was in the cities in the aftermath of Prohibition, gangs were consolidating and becoming crime families. In the small towns of Depression era America, however, there was economic lawlessness and desperate people did desperate things.
No one more personified this than Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker who became legendary for their bank-robbing exploits (actually they preferred grocery stores and gas stations but, perhaps, then as now, banks seemed to be, in the public’s mind, better targets). Many of their exploits overlapped the territory where the FSA photographers worked: the rural heartland of the country. The couple were Texans through and through (Big City Texan in the case of Bonnie. She was from Dallas). Barrow and Parker centered their activities around the Lone Star State and Oklahoma but later branched out to the Midwest.
They were, whether by self invention or as newspaper-selling darlings, Gansta before there were Ganstas.
This image is of a General view of one of the yards of the Chicago and Northwestern railroad, Chicago, Ill.
Notice the film’s edges, indicating it was shot with a “4X5” camera, probably a Speed Graphic which was the “Go To” press camera of the era.
Also, notice, it was shot in color, a rarity in this era. Since it was a “positive,” meaning that the image was not reversed (a “negative”) but positive (the image showed correctly) , it was, undoubtedly shot on Kodak’s Kodachrome film.
This was not as easy a photograph to make as it first appears.
When Russell Lee and the other Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers set out on the American Highway of the 1930’s, the country was stuck between a deep and intractable Depression and distant rumblings of a growing doom coming from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Unemployment hovered around 20% for most of the decade. The “have’s” were recovering, but the “Common Man,” still often found himself (or herself) living a subsistence lifestyle. By 1938, the roiling anger of the decade had turned to dejection. The Depression, it seemed, would go on forever.
The beginning of FDR’s New Deal was based on the belief that changing America for the better was possible and that by informing the general public of the plight of the average American, things could change, justice could be found, that all could end well.
The FSA and its photographers had set out with this belief and undertook the task of informing the general public of the plight of the average American.
But the Depression ground on.
By 1938, the country was still nowhere near out of the Great Depression. Officially begun at the end of the last decade, America had not yet begun it’s industrial expansion -and, thus, its rise from the ashes- and the cumulative effect of devaluation, dislocation and uncertainty had demoralized the national soul.
What did Russell Lee do when he was on the road? His notes indicate that he did a lot of thinking about what he had shot at the last stop and what he needed to shoot at the next stop. However, in the thousands of miles that he logged in for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) he must have found “blank spaces” in his travels, times when he was bored with the road, even the job and its mission.
Did he have a radio in his old Ford? He was an innovator and, as a photographer, he was up on the latest technology, being one of the first photojournalists of his day to use the Rollieflex Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) camera (which had a 2 1/4inch square negative and, thus, was small and mobile). This would lead one to speculate that, perhaps Lee was also interested in other technologies and, when he “hit the road” for the FSA, radios and radio networks were a fairly recent innovation.
There were 599 radio stations in 1936.
Broadcasting of the 599 broadcasting stations in the United States, approximately 500 were licensed to different individuals or corporations. There were two major network organizations–the National Broadcasting Company, operating two national networks linking in whole or part a total of about eighty stations, and the Columbia Broadcasting System, also linking about eighty stations but in a single network in whole or part. Most of these stations were individually owned by private enterprises.
News to people along Russell Lee’s Road, and other rural locations, could get there news more rapidly from radio than they could from print media and, once the radio had been purchased, the news was free if you were anywhere near a broadcasting tower or had a radio in your car.
It’s going going almost gone. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes. Paint to rust.
The thing about the West, still, is there’s still lots of space, in the land and in the brain. Enough space to not become everything we left behind, a continent or a government (or two) ago. Earth migrants we are, one step ahead of a rabid reality. We have artifacts and clues that this history of ours is circular and not linear. Things like this Dodge remind us that there was another time of economic freak out. Another time of political terrorism. Another time of slogging onward, toward the light (which turned out to arrive at four or five years of the dark: WW II). Funny how the “dark,” also had a lot of light in it. What a battered generation the people from 1930s were: Depression, World War, the Cold War. Yet, they created the “modern era” we have lived in and off of for these seventy some years.
We pine for them and, in some cases -mine- then. But, they are just rust now. “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it,” said George Santayana. What if you want to repeat it, I ask myself, in my endless mucking around in the dust and rust.
Maybe this car has to fade away so we can move onward. Maybe there has to be no trace of the past to have a truly new future. Or maybe, it’s these artifacts of time that keeps us straight.
Sights & Sounds of the Farm Security Administration 19335-1943 Part 1 by the Pare Lorenzt Center
Radio with ornaments and decorations in home of
FSA client (Farm Security Administration) client
near Caruthersville, Missouri, by Russell Lee/FSA
The 1930’s and Cultural Expansion
Part One: Music
Article by Bruce Berman
Russell Lee’s 1930’s –The Great Depression- was a time of hardship and scarcity and fear. One might think that these facts would engender an atmosphere of emotional darkness and gloom. Indeed, in the early years of the Depression -1929-1933- there were few indicators that anything good could come out of this disaster. The Stock Market had crashed, the Dust Bowl had devastated several states, reducing agriculture (and, thus, farming) to an unsustainable means of living, forcing major waves of migration in pursuit of better opportunities. There was political uncertainty as the country moved from the passive but seemingly robust Republicanism of the 1920’s, (in which many Americans had to believe they, to, were too become rich) and the uncertain experimentation of the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt’s bold but unproven neo-Socialism, had not yet been proven.
The Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers spent a lot of time on the road. They -like the increasingly migrant population of the country- spent a lot of time between places. I, like them, spend a lot of times between places. It’s there that I -and the FSA shooters, apparently- find clarity, quiet, time and silence.
Elida, New Mexico has a population of 183 people, one convenience store, a looks-to-be thirty five thousand dollar police cruiser with radar that fills up the passenger seat (I peeked), some old natural gas tanks. The town can be missed when you’re driving through unless you have a flat, need gas or relief or that police car gets you. It looks like most of the town’s revenue comes from that police car.
El Paso — The engine is being tuned. The lenses are being cleaned. The cob webs of the cabeza (gathered in academe) are being swept away.The Russell Lee’s Road roadshow is getting ready to roll again.
This time, the project will be following the 1949 work of Russell Lee produced for The Study Of The Spanish Speaking People Of Texas.
Nearly half the population of New Mexico is “Hispanic.” To be exact according to the 2010 census, 46.3% claim Hispanic heritage. The definition of that word varies and in New Mexico people who speak Spanish come from diverse backgrounds, cultures and traditions.
According to the United States Census for 2010 (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/35000.html) there were 873,171 (46.3%) Hispanics or Latino (of any race) in New Mexico. The discussion of who is “hispanic,” versus who is Mexican, in New Mexico and nationally is complicated and nuanced. In New Mexico there are 18% of the State’s population claiming Spanish heritage while 16% claim Mexican. The political and social overtones of that self-claiming defintion is a discussion that this site will explore in further detail as this summer of 2011 project progresses. Keeping in the tradition of the FSA, this site is acutely more interested in Class and Culture than it is in Race.
Russell Lee drove up and down U.S. 60 frequently, going back to Pie Town toward the western end of the state and then back out, heading east, down off the high plains into the Rio Grande trough to the town of Socorro, and beyond. The Very Large Array (VLA) is a radio astronomy observatory. In Russell Lee’s day radio was not new but it was a phenomenon of communication and was rapidly rivaling newspapers for its powers of influence and information distribution. In fact, much of the FSA’s work was meant to be used for this very purpose.
One of the things that amazes me, every time I start to work with this, is how time seems to disappear when I see what images I have found, on the project and what Lee found 70 years before and when I go to searching for an image that might have something to do with one of mine -voila!- there it is! So far, it’s always been there. What this means…I’m still pondering. It seems there is a world still out there that has changed little. Is that possible? I find that Lee and I may have had similar sensibilities (I don’t think he was doing a gig in Pie Town. I think he was hiding out). Is that it? I spent a year looking for Lee. In July, after a long haul through a bone dry desert I found Lee in Yeso, NM. I will tell that story in the coming days, but for now I am thinking that he -and now, I- spend too much time in cities and that when when we get out into the “field,” we are attracted to, or reactive to, the same things?
Fort Sumner, Big Gun in the Head, NM, July 2010 by Bruce Berman
You go through a long long desert coming from the west and the very beginnings of another eco-system begins, finally, in Fort Sumner. You can feel a little bit of moisture in the air. There are trees. You are no longer in “The West.”
Billy the Kid
Depending on which way you’re heading, Fort Sumner is the fulcrum.
The Reverend Lesley Tibbs conducting a 9am church service in his “Cowboy Church,” at the City Fairgrounds in Portales, NM. The service was a prelude to a Barrel Racing event that was a part of the 100th Heritage Days. When asked about the denomination of his church, the Reverend Tibbs replied, “I’m just a Christian doing Christian work.”
1936 Ford. 1994 Honda Station Wagon. They only have two things in common: they were both “born,” in the 20th century and they both use gas.
One, the Ford -Lee’s- was created, of course, in Detroit. The Honda-mine- was made by a Japanese car company, and was assembled in Indianapolis.
One, the Ford, and its powerful Flathead V8 was considered an advanced and state-of-the-art automobile with solid Ford Mechanical engineering.
The Honda, in its time (1994) was considered an advanced automobile, touted for its advanced electrical engineering.
It is now considered a “clunker.”
Economics change. Then, the average price of a gallon of gasoline was $ .15. For 2010, the average price is $ 2.75.
Then, the automobile was replacing the horse. Now, the automobile is considered a necessity for travel, work and play and some people, “The Greens,” call for replacing personal automobiles with public transit.
Roy Stryker, Farm Security Administration Russell Lee’s camera
Article by Mary Lamonica
Russell Lee shot more photographs for the Farm Security Administration and stayed on the road longer for assignments than did any of the other photographers, including Arthur Rothstein and Dorothea Lange, both of whom were tremendously productive.
Roy Stryker, the FSA photographers’ supervisor, once said that he believed Russell Lee could stay on the road forever. Lee, accompanied by his wife Jean from 1939 onward, seemed comfortable in an endless string of hotels. And, his letters to Stryker from the road reveal boundless curiosity about the nation and its citizens and empathy toward their living and working conditions during the years of the Great Depression.
September 1938. Girls at a carnival in New Mexico by Russell Lee for the FSA.
by Mary Lamonica
If you compare Russell Lee’s photographs to those of other FSA photographers, Lee’s images often evoke the idea that people might have been laid low by the depression, but they certainly had not given up.
In their thousands of miles of travel for the FSA, Russell and Jean Lee found pride, optimism, and courage among the people they photographed and interviewed during the Great Depression. Jean Lee recounted what she felt were Americans’ defining qualities during that difficult era to interviewer Richard K. Doud of the Smithsonian Institution in June 1964:
“It was a tremendous pride that they all had. We saw them along ditch banks and they didn’t have anything, They were living on the ditch banks, they were picking wild berries to eat, because there was nothing else. But it was very seldom that you found a person who really felt whipped. Somehow they were going to go on until this afternoon, at least. Now they didn’t know what was going to happen tomorrow, but until late this afternoon, somehow it would work out all right. There was tremendous pride and tremendous courage; we found it everywhere.”
Hispanic girl from Chamisal, NM 1940, by Russell Lee
by Mary Lamonica
Drive through New Mexico today and you’ll find a state awash with vibrant cultures. Hispanics, Native Americans, Anglos, African Americans, and Asian Americans all call New Mexico home. Back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Russell Lee and his boss, Roy Stryker, the head of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) which employed Russell Lee and the other FSA shooters (including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon), knew many Americans were unfamiliar with Hispanics and Hispanic life. Racial laws supposedly providing “separate, but equal” facilities were anything but. Stryker and Lee were determined to do their part to change the situation by sending Lee on a lengthy documentary trip through the Southwest to showcase Hispanic life. New Mexico’s more than 221,000 Hispanics were the key draw.
Filling station in New Mexico. Boys pulling water from a well.
photograph by Russell Lee
by Mary Lamonica
Cars. By 1929, more than 26.5 million automobiles cris-crossed American roads. Between one-third and one-half of all families owned a vehicle when the stock market collapsed in October 1929.
Although many Americans lost homes and jobs during the Great Depression, those who could hung onto their automobiles and their radios. Both brought dreams of a better life, but cars might actually be able to get people there.
Cars, therefore, were more than mere vehicles of transportation during the depression years. Cars were hope. Cars were freedom. Cars often were homes, too, as abundant FSA photographs attest. It’s not surprising that so many people
It’s probably hard to believe it, but I never saw this image of Russell Lee’s until this morning. This keeps happening. It either means I’m an unoriginal wannabe, or that there is still a lot out there that is similar to what used to be out there, and it’s still good “Cannon Fodder,” for a photographer.
The Postmistress, Iola Alvarez, in Garfield, New Mexico, claims these mailboxes were first installed in 1919.
October 1938. “Princesses on float at the National Rice Festival parade.
Crowley, Louisiana by Russell Lee for the FSA.
by Bruce Berman
Russell Lee went to a lot of parades, festivals and public events. So do I. Most information-oriented photographers do. It’s a good place to shoot because people are busy having fun, not thinking too much about what purpose a photographer might have for the photographs and a good photographer can come home with a lot of images that show people doing things, living life, interacting.
Homesteader Bill Stagg with pinto beans, 1940, Pie Town, NM
Photograph by Russell Lee
by Mary Lamonica
Russell and Jean Lee were attracted to Pie Town, New Mexico in June 1940 for the same reasons tourists are today: the town’s quirky name on a map attracts attention. And, they heard you really could get pie. But the Lees, like tourists today, had a long drive to get there. The town is located 80 miles west of Socorro on Hwy 60. It’s another 70 miles to the Arizona border. The drive is a scenic one, however, with ranch land, Pinon Pine and Junipers dotting the landscape. An occasional antelope or deer may bound by.
Jim and Jimbo Williams are from Quemado, New Mexico and are ranchers. Jim, left, restored his 1951 International Harvester truck over a ten year period until, “It runs like a top.”
New Mexico, 1940. A time in which
homesteaders still used burros/donkeys
as a means of transportation.
Photograph by Russell Lee
Jim Williams’ mother, and Jimbo’s grandmother, Eleanor Heacock (Williams) is the subject of a famous photograph taken by Russell Lee for the FSA, at their Rising Sun Ranch. The Lee photograph depicts Miss Heacock riding a mule in a race.
He and his father Jim are aware of Russell Lee and Jim “treasures the photograph.” The name of their ranch, and where the famous phoitograph was taken, is called the Rising Star Ranch.
The grant that has made this project possible is called The Rising Star Grant.
Tito Gonzales was born in Fort Sumner, NM, in 1939, across the street from the Coronado Motel, where this photograph was made. The Coronado is on U.S. 60, the road that Russell Lee traveled, back and forth, during his journey through western New Mexico and back again.
Russell Lee drove past Tito’s house several times in his travels.
by Bruce Berman
“I really like it here,” he says, “It’s comfortable and you get a lot of people passing through looking for Billy the Kid and whatnot. You’re the first one who ever asked about the whereabouts of a dead photographer!”
Mr. Gonzales has lived in the Coronado for over thirty years.
Mike Wilbon came to Magdalena from California a few years ago. He bought a local motel and then went up into Magdalena Mountain to do some mining. Or maybe he did the mining first. He mines for precious stones. The old miners in Magdalena were interested in gold and silver, but more recent miners seek their own kind of treasure. The glistening crystals in Mike’s stone are gold to him.
This is the highway west of Magdalena, New Mexico, heading to Datil and Pie Town. This is a road that Russell Lee traveled many times, I am sure, when he needed to resupply himself for his adventure in Pie Town, 70 miles to the west. He came back down this road, kept going, and got re-stocked in Socorro. In 1937, the road was dirt. Now it’s two lane blacktop. Traffic is sparse. The land does not feel desolate, but it is vast. Today, when heading west up into the mountains it’s not easy to even remember the brutal Interstate or the homogenizing Walmart world you’ve left behind.
U.S.60 in New Mexico is now a paved two lane and in the summer, when this image was made -June 2010- it’s hot! Triple digits. The highway is squishy when you step on it and the heat rushes into the car when you open the door, enveloping you, smothering you. It is that way now and it was, I am sure, that way when Russell Lee tooled his way to Pie Town, 74 years ago.
Hot -or cold- stepping out onto Russell Lee’s Road is an adventure that started for me when I first picked up a camera, with professional intentions, 42 years ago. The first step -this photo- is an embrace.