The Project Journal

The Rising Star Grant and the Russell Lee Project

An Introduction by Mary Lamonica

This project was born in 2008 out of scattered discussions between Bruce Berman and myself about how people were coping (or not) during the current economic downturn. Our initial talks often were little more than snatches of conversations held in corridors as we headed to our classes.  As final exams wound down one semester, we decided that a documentary project was at hand. We had intended to call our work “The New Hard Times.” A book (or maybe two) on the subject is the eventual goal. This blog is both our starting point and our most dynamic medium from which we can display our ongoing work.

Although we spend much of the year teaching in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at New Mexico State University, the project fired our journalistic impulses. Then, too, we both suffer from wanderlust. Neither of us has to be talked into taking a road trip.

As our conversations took shape, we discussed parallels and differences between today and the Great Depression. And, we discussed the extensive documentary work done during the  Depression-era by the photographers who worked for the Farm Security Administration. The FSA as it was known, was one of many federal programs to emerge during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. Its intent was to alleviate rural poverty by purchasing sub-marginal farm land and moving farmers, while tackling other ills like soil erosion. The program sought to help the rural poor by teaching them scientific agriculture, bookkeeping, and other skills.

Dairy, Arrey, NM, May 2010 by Bruce Berman

The FSA emerged in 1935 as part of the Resettlement Administration. The RA, as the organization was known, was meant to right some wrongs created by an earlier Act, the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act. The AAA established the practice of paying farmers to reduce their production of seven key commodities–cotton, rice, tobacco, corn, wheat, milk, and peanuts. By reducing production, prices for commodities rose and farmers lives improved.

Although the Act was controversial and eventually ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1937, unexpected consequences quickly emerged. The government did indeed balance some supply and demand, but the farmers took their checks and bought tractors. Then, they told their tenant laborers and migrant workers to leave. The resulting homelessness and increased rural poverty only added to the miseries of the ongoing Depression.

The FSA’s Information Divisions, which was meant to be just one aspect of the agency, became its legacy. Initially, the photographers were hired to undertake public relations work by documenting both the plight of poor farmers and the help given to them by the government.

By the latter 1930s, however, Roy Stryker, the director of the FSA’s Information Division, broadened his photographers’ mandate without seeking government approval. Stryker, an economist who previously taught at Columbia University, understood the value of documentary photography and saw an opportunity. He directed his photographers to fully document rural life in America, rather than just photograph FSA projects.

By the early 1940s, more than 250,000 photos of rural and urban life had been taken by FSA photographers. Of those, more than 164,000 remain. The collection, which includes a number of early color photographs, has been digitized and is available via the Library of Congress’s website.

The FSA photographic files are a national treasure. The sheer number of photographs is not the collection’s only strength. A perusal of the pictures demonstrates that the lives women and minorities were extensively photographed. This latter fact gives the collection a particular depth and richness.

The photographers were an itinerant bunch. Some came and went quickly, while others, like Russell Lee, were employed for years. At various times between 1935 and 1943, Stryker’s photographic staff included Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn, Carl Mydans, Marion Post Wolcott, John Collier, Jr., Jack Delano, and John Vachon, among others.

When most Americans (and, indeed, much of the world), think of the depression years, the visual images made by the FSA’s photographers come to mind. And, historians and photography experts alike attribute much of the development of modern documentary photography to the work of these photographers.

Although many people recognize Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother” as well as Arthur Rothstein’s equally memorable 1936 photo of a Cimarron County, Oklahoma farmer and his two young sons racing toward their farm house during a dust storm, the photographers’ names are less known.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, CA, 1936 by Dorothea Lange

Both Bruce Berman and myself were drawn to these images for several reasons. First, our home  is the Southwest. Like the FSA photographers who came through here in the 1930s and early 1940s, we are both transplants. Bruce hails from Chicago and I grew up in northeastern Massachusetts, about as far from the Pinon Pine and Juniper of New Mexico as you can get. Nevertheless, there are many aspects of the people, the cultures, the landscape, and the lifestyles of the region that speak to us and keep us here.

Five of the FSA photographers: Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, John Collier, Jr., and John Vachon, all spent time in New Mexico and captured slices of rural New Mexican life during the 1930s and early 1940s. They portrayed the lives of New Mexico’s Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and Anglos, as well as documenting the lives of migrants heading to California via roads like U. S. Highway 60.

Despite the starkness of some of the FSA images, all was not despair. The dust bowl survivors were just that. The FSA photographers also documented community and hope. Dances, church suppers, images of neighbors helping neighbors, and people helping complete strangers are just as commonplace in the Library of Congress’s photo files. Amid those often-crushing economic hard times were traces of optimism and resiliency. Hope bloomed through the cracks.

Those qualities of spirit drew us. The time was ripe to get out of the classroom and hit the road. As we continued our discussions, we realized that we were drawn to one FSA photographer more than the others. That individual was Russell Lee.

Lee was a quiet man who knew how to portray his subjects with dignity. His work doesn’t evoke the stark hopeless so apparent in many of Walker Evans’s photographs of destitute white sharecroppers in Alabama. Nor, for that matter, does Lee’s view of America during the depression have the effervescence that so many of Esther Bubley’s images appear to have.

Of all of the FSA photographers who documented the Southwest, Russell Lee (accompanied by his journalist wife, Jean) spent the most time in this region. That factor, plus his compassionate portrayals led us to focus on Lee’s work. We spent substantial time considering what Lee accomplished in New Mexico.

Pie Town, 1937, by Russell Lee

After a preliminary drive across the western portion of Highway 60–from Socorro to the Arizona border–our New Mexico work halted until we journeyed to Texas. More specifically, to the University of Texas at Austin and to Southwest Texas State University at San Marcos, both of which hold Russell Lee’s personal papers, including his photographs, notebooks, and letters. We also read the majority of scholarly books and journal articles written about Russell and Jean Lee before resuming our NM journeys and perused, via microfilm, hundreds of letters written to and from the FSA photographers and Roy Stryker. That collection is held at the University of Louisville.

Once informed, we determined to travel, as closely as possible, the same roads that Russell and Jean Lee took seven decades ago. And, we also were determined to interview and photograph people in the same spirit. This blog is the first step in what will be a bigger journey. Along the way we’ve met people, like Lucy Pino of Magdalena who evoke Lee’s spirit of community. Mrs. Pino, after decades spent in California raising a family, returned to her home town of Magdalena and decided her small community needed a library. It now has one.

Lucy Pino and many of the other people you will meet via this blog live along Russell Lee’s roads. We began with Highway 60 which stretches the length of New Mexico. We also traveled to far eastern and far southern New Mexico along the same routes, taking in Roswell, Hatch and other communities Lee photographed.

If he had not passed on in 1986, Russell Lee would still recognize much of the region. Certainly much of the landscape remains unchanged. And, many of the buildings Lee photographed still stand. But, it is the spirit of the people, the ranchers, miners, rodeo queens, migrant workers, teachers, librarians, farm kids, and others that Lee would still appreciate.

Yet, there are changes. The rural, mountain community of Pie Town which Lee made famous in 1940 via more than 620 photos of migrant homesteaders is much quieter today. Most of the 250 families who relocated there moved on by the 1950s when drought made farming almost impossible. Today it’s home to approximately 100 hardy, yet often kind, souls. And, yes, there’s still pie at two restaurants.

Hatch, New Mexico, Chicken Truck, May 2010, by Bruce Berman

Just down the road from Pie Town on the hot, dry plains of San Augustin is the VLA–the Very Large Array–a collection of 27 satellite dish radio antennas. The Array’s antennas are so enormous–25 meters in diameter–that they sit on railroad tracks which are used to move them. They take pictures of the universe. We think Russell Lee would appreciate them.

Much of this blog, then, is devoted to the small communities along NM Highway 60. Russell Lee’s road. The FSA road. The road and its communities proved irresistible subjects to us today in large measure because of precisely what you will not find. Most of the journey lacks the chain restaurants, motels, and stores whose presence makes you feel like America is a generic place.

Instead, Highway 60 remains a two-lane road. It’s paved now, but is still largely rural. It’s a road where you’d better stop for gasoline when you see a station. And, it remains a road where people wave at you as you drive by.

We hope you will join us on our journey by viewing this blog. We will be updating this site regularly. We encourage your feedback. Last, but not least, we’d like to give thanks to New Mexico State University for giving us our Rising Star Grant. We’d also like to thank Dr. Anne Hubbell for helping us obtain this first grant and for believing in us. And, we’d like to thank all of the people we have met–and will meet–on the road.

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