Yeso is a small (7 people) ex railroad stop and repair yard on U.S. Highway 60 in east Central New Mexico.
It is all but abandoned.
It is silent and vast and ruined and worth stopping for, for the silence alone.
When I went to pack up my gear and head east to Portales, I found that my polarizing filter had disappeared. ¡Desesparado! After a half hour of searching for it I’d had enough and screamed in frustration. A block away, seven people came out of the one occupied house left in Yeso.
They constituted the entire population of the town.
Embarrassed, I realized that I was disturbing the peace.
I left, honored the silence, was humbled and slinked away (Polarizerless).
Just east of El Paso,on the edge of town, about 20 miles from downtown, not far from the Rio Grande river that separates the United States from Mexico, there’s only two roads out of town. One is Interstate 10 and the other is the old main highway, U.S. 80, a road that was the main southern link between San Augustine, Florida and San Diego, California.
Just outside of El Paso, the two great roads divide, I10 shooting straight east, like an arrow. U.S. 80 turns south and follows the river until it turn east at Esparanza and then wiggles on, ambling through Texas, heading to the bayous of Louisiana.
The road, now part of El Paso’s east side thins out, about 30 miles from El Paso’s central downtown, then dwindles into Fabens, a farm town, the last town of West Texas.
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?”
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.
Marilyn photographed by John Vachon during location shooting for River Of No Return in August 1953
Text by Bruce Berman, Editor
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.