Lee, Hispanics/Latinos and Contemporary Documentary Concerns

1939, Russell Lee: Mexican woman and children looking over side of truck, Neches, Texas

Article by Bruce Berman

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.

1948, Spanish American Music Group by Russell Lee/Library of Congress
2005, Cantina bass player, Juarez, by Bruce Berman

In his writings and in conversations, Lee expressed admiration for this community.

In 1948, Lee was commissioned by University of Texas professor George I. Sanchez to illustrate the Study of the Spanish-Speaking People of Texas, now housed at the University of Texas. Directed by sociologist Lyle Saunders, the multi-year, socioeconomic study aimed to fill substantial gaps in the data then available about the expanding Spanish-speaking population of Texas. Sanchez and Saunders hoped to educate public officials, bureaucrats, and other powerful and influential Texans, as well as the general public. In retrospect, the term “Spanish-Speaking,” was a wise choice of wording in that there is a great deal of confusion on how best to refer to the Spanish speaking people of the former Mexican States of New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Arizona and California.

Lee, in the late 1930’s had already shown enough interest in the  Hispanic/Latino people’s of New Mexico that he sought counsel from Sanchez and traveled to Sanchez’ home in Albuquerque to become educated about that community.

It is beyond speculation that Lee was doing more than just photographing that community on assignment. He was becoming immersed in it.

Lee’s emphasis on modern humanism (http://www.jcn.com/humanism.html) and upward social mobility -aspiration- rather than despair and hopelessness matched up well with the Hispanic communities he worked in. In El Paso, for example, he photographed joyous children, at play in the public swimming pool in Armijo Park, in the Segundo barrio of El Paso’s south side. Instead of focusing on the marginalization of Hispanics/Latinos, and poverty, Lee concentrated on “Hispanic/Latino,” aspiration. Unlike his fellow FSA photographers, Lee focused on the positiveness of the community more than the ravages of their marginalized economic plight or the widespread discrimination that the “Hispanic/Latino,” community of the times experienced.

Summer 1949, Swimming pool at Armijo Park, El Paso, Texas, photograph by Russell Lee/LOC

His work from this era, some have argued, was his most profound work, digging deeply into the subjects, revealing their humanity, showing their family structure, their customs and living condition and elevating his subjects, visually, to a place of respect. In the Texas and New Mexico of this era, 1936-1950, these photographs almost “scream,” a counter-narrative to the existing cultural divide often found in these States at this time.

June 2010, Julio and Leandra, “Latino” couple, City Pool, Portales, NM, photograph by Bruce Berman

The question of the validity of Lee’s photographs as a true insight into the community, has been raised by some Latino historians in contemporary times [Note: Latino is a more contemporary word for a person of Spanish-speaking descent, but more commonly refers to a person with mixed Indian blood as opposed to Spanish. In general, the word Hispanic is generally used to describe a person who identifies as a person of Spanish/European descent, whereas, the word Latino is often used to denote a person of Mestizo descent. As with all labeling, these definitions are not exact and not universally agreed upon and have the great potential to offend by misapplication].

This questioning is not so much negatively aimed at Lee or his intentions. His images are usually considered positive and supportive. Rather, the questions that contemporary historians raise are not so much about Lee but go to a bigger issue in journalism and documentation, the question of Who’s viewpoint is being shown and investigated? The questions being asked are, Who else was working on these subjects and would the images have been different if they were made by a person of the ethnicity that is pictured? Were there no Hispanic/Latino photographers? Why weren’t any Hispanic/Latino photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration, and, later, for example, why were no Hispanic/Latino photographers commissioned to work on the Study of the Spanish-Speaking People of Texas?

The only known parallel to this hypothesis are the photographs of Roman Vishniac (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Roman_Vishniac.html), taken by the Jewish photographer, after he snuck into the Warsaw Ghetto, in 1939, and depicted the conditions of the Jewish population there. The photographs are strikingly different in content and mood than any other existing photographs-then or now. This reference is not to suggest that the condition of Hispanic/Latino people of the American Southwest was in any way parallel to the Warsaw Ghetto, but it is an example of how a person who is of a community has a different viewpoint -and motivation– than a photographer who is shooting from the “outside.”

Other examples by Hispanic/Latino writers Gary Soto and Gloria Lopez-Stafford are testaments to the intimacy of familiarity.  Soto’s writing (http://www.notablebiographies.com/news/Sh-Z/Soto-Gary.html), depicts his early life in Fresno, California and Lopez-Stafford’s book (http://www.amazon.com/Place-El-Paso-Mexican-American-Childhood/dp/082631709X) tells of a difficult youth in the El Paso barrios of the 1940’s.  It is difficult to imagine a “visitor,” to the barrio revealing the experience of a particular ethnic group in this kind of detail and with such emotional impact.

Conversely, a counter argument can be made for the “outsider photographer,” in the photographs and narrative contained in the book, A Los Angeles Story, Chavez Ravine, 1949, by Don Normack (http://www.chroniclebooks.com/index/main,book-info/store,books/products_id,1266/title,Chavez-Ravine-1949/). His telling the story of the story and struggle of the people of this barrio in East Lost Angeles is infused with the freshness and sincerity of “the concerned outsider.”

The issue of “outsider versus insider,” in the telling of stories via documentary photographer will be discussed in future posts on this web site. For now, the only point being made is in the form of a question: Who’s Viewpoint is most valid in the telling of a story or does it matter? What are the criteria beyond ethnicity that determine truth in a documentary project?

Most reputable contemporary Hispanic/Latino historians, don’t question Lee’s intentions or photographic production. David Romo, for example, author of Ringside Seat to a Revolution (http://www.sergiotroncoso.com/essays/eptimes/05-1113/index.htm), a widely admired book 2005 book that pays considerable attention to Latino photographers just preceding the era of Lee and the FSA, points out the abundance of practicing Hispanic/Latino photographers who were working in this region of the Southwest.

Rather, contemporary cultural historians ask, Were there no qualified Latino photographers to document the conditions of Hispanics/Latinos in this region? Would their viewpoint have been worthwhile for these great projects or more valid? What is the importance of Viewpoint in determining the validity of documentation?

The question is not so much, Did Lee’s photographs depict the Hispanic/Latino community in a true and fair light, but, is there other work that is  as valid or more valid in understanding this community?

The answer is, probably, that “everyone’s contribution is valid, if it’s valid.”  The nature of documentary photography is to use photography as an instrument of two-way education, informing an unknowing community about a community they need to know about. It seems reasonable that deep knowledge of a community -being of the community- can only enrich a documentary piece. Conversely, the fresh insights brought to the work depicting a community are not to be underrated. On the one hand, the “magic,” of pure discovery, of making images about what one does not know about, has, throughout photography’s history, enriched our visual landscape.Ignorance may not be bliss, but it can lead to an alert eye and, often times, chance epiphanies.

June 2010, Julio and the friends, City Pool, Portales, NM, by Bruce Berman

Throughout the Study of the Spanish-Speaking People of Texas, now housed at the University of Texas at Austin, Lee sought out and photographed the dignity of the people he found in that community. The question is, how would Latino photographers see themselves? Future posts will explore this issue and will publish narratives and images from Latino photographers from the Lee era and from this contemporary era.

Other links relevant to this discussion:

A note about the author/photographer’s work:

Photographer Bruce Berman, is co-author, photographer and webmaster for this web site and is the creator of the concept for the Russell Lee Road Project. He has worked from his base in El Paso, Texas since the early 1980’s, documenting many of the same places places and themes that Lee did. Berman’s work, The Border Project, although different than Lee’s Survey of the Spanish Speaking People of Texas, has  some parallels. His stated intention, since 1980, has been to give information and “face,” to the Latino community of West Texas and Southern New Mexico. He has produced series’ of photographs, exhibitions, and executed commissions for such publications as The New York Times and Time, Texas Monthly, The Chronicle for Higher Education and others. Additionally, he has written extensively about the border, border culture and photography. In the great tradition of Lee, who Mr. Berman has admired sionce his earliest photographic assignment (Christian Science Monitor, 1969) he has tried to do more than just show the “surface,” of a community. He likes to immerse in his subjects, what some photographers call, the fly-on-the-wall approach.

Much as Lee moved into Pie Town, NM, lived there, became part of the community, to better cover the people who lived there, Berman “temporarily,” moved into the barrio, three blocks from the Mexican border, at El Paso, in 1980, and, has stayed there, gathering images, experiences and stories ever since.

Many of these images and writings can be found at www.border-blog.com.

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