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).
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.
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?
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
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.