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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.