Jack Delano and the Greene County Jail Dance

Greene County Jail, Jack Delano, 1941Georgia, June 1941. Photo by Jack Delano.

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.

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Lee, Hispanics/Latinos and Contemporary Documentary Concerns

1939, Russell Lee: Mexican woman and children looking over side of truck, Neches, Texas

Article by Bruce Berman

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.

1948, Spanish American Music Group by Russell Lee/Library of Congress
2005, Cantina bass player, Juarez, by Bruce Berman

In his writings and in conversations, Lee expressed admiration for this community.

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Russell Lee: The Depression to Modernity

Sunday morning on the south side of Chicago by Russell Lee, 1941
Sunday morning on the south side of Chicago by Russell Lee, 1941

Text by Bruce Berman

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.

The Rolleiflex TLR (Twin Lens Reflex) camera
The Rolleiflex TLR (Twin Lens Reflex) camera

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.

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Two Americas: Big Gulp Nation v. Cappachino City

Friends on Main Street, Anson, Texas

©2012 Bruce Berman

Editorial Comment

by Bruce Berman, RLR Editor

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?

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The Radio On U.S. 60

The VLA, U.S. 60, New Mexico

by Bruce Berman ©2011

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.  

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Optimism: It’s a Viewpoint

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.”

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Russell Lee and the Cultures of New Mexico

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.

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