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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.