Text by Bruce Berman
This giant roadrunner is on Interstate 10, west of Las Cruces, New Mexico. In Russell Lee’s day this was highway U.S. 70/80. Lee traveled in a 1930’s Ford, often with his wife Jean. A photographer on assignment today can leave, for example, Houston, in the morning, fly to El Paso, rent a car, drive out toe area where this spot is, photograph his job, transmit it from his laptop and Mobile Hot Spot, stop for, say some great enchiladas in Las Cruces on the reverse trip, get on the plane and be in Houston by mid evening.
For Lee, getting to this spot, between Deming and and Las Cruces, leaving from, say, his last stop, (perhaps, El Paso, fifty miles away) would take a full day. Top speed limits in the 1930s were 45 to 50 mph . Speed limit signs, in the U.S. were not legally required until the mid 1920s.
For Russell and Jean Lee, getting to a location for an FSA shoot was not a small part of the job. It was a physical act. They had no air conditioning, the roads were not smooth throughout their length and their engines were -at least for an automobile like Lee’s early 30s Ford- noisy. One can only speculate, but it is reasonable to think that Lee -and the other FSA shooters- would feel more a part of their stories than would the 2014 shooter who could depart and return home, 800 miles away, in the same day. Furthering that speculation, it’s possible that the depth and “personableness” that FSA photography is noted for, is in part, a byproduct of this “more extended” involvement.
FSA shooters put more time on the ground just getting to a site than today’s photographers do. There is more on-the-ground involvement, more of being part of the land than today’s shooter can possibly have.
This is not an argument of “the past was better.” Rather it is an attempt to understand the consistent and impressive humanity that FSA photography exhibits.
Not worrying about catching your plane, which could lead to you being late to dinner, could challenge a reporter/photographer from getting the deep understanding, that was the mission of the FSA and their team of shooters.