Russell Lee: The Depression to Modernity

Sunday morning on the south side of Chicago by Russell Lee, 1941
Sunday morning on the south side of Chicago by Russell Lee, 1941

Text by Bruce Berman

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.

The Rolleiflex TLR (Twin Lens Reflex) camera
The Rolleiflex TLR (Twin Lens Reflex) camera

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.

The theme of prosperity and racial progress and harmony was not accidental. It was a subliminal message to the leaders of the coming Fascist opponents. In other words, Listen up Benny, Adolpho, and Tojie, don’t underestimate us.  

This is one of Lee’ finest images. It not only sends a clear and unmistakable message but as a physical object, a photograph it is gorgeous and uses several complimentary elements of Craft and Composition: the diagonal line, focus (lack of it, keeping your eyes on the main subject and subduing the background, asymmetry (the headlights, one with a hat over it making it the Yin to the other’s Yang!), repeating patterns (the trees) along with the strong documentary content (using informational elements, like the license plate and the data that it contains).

As the country moved from Depression to War, the FSA turned from being the domestic-oriented band of socially conscious warriors for the New Deal to a more outwardly-looking and subliminal group of info warriors in the employ of the same employer, the U.S. Government, the same supervisor, Roy Stryker, but with a new name -Office of War Information (OWI)- and a sophisticated graphic propaganda-oriented image that tried to do with images what the growing war material industry would do for the Allied armies: beat the Fascists of Japan Germany and Italy.

The measure of their success was the strong support for the war (once Pearl Harbor aroused patriotic fervor). Images were everywhere: Posters, newspapers, magazine and movie screens (the little documentaries that separated double features never let the entertained audience that we were at war and that it was your duty to support it).

This was propaganda at its best. Images as spears, the narrative shaped in a visual language that communicated deeply and to more than the intellect. This was propaganda aimed at the heart of Americans (not at a foreign audience which was of no concern. Contrast these images to the abundance of government-sponsored “information” agencies we have now that apparently view world persuasion as essential to furthering U.S. goals).

“Sunday morning on the south side of Chicago by Russell Lee,” is a nascent image in the opening barrage of that war, leading slowly but surely to the indelible images of Joe Rosenthal and beyond.

Flag raising on Mt. Surabachi by Joe Rosenthal, 1945
Flag raising on Mt. Surabachi by Joe Rosenthal, 1945

There is no question that the image-makers under Roy Stryker’s wing had progressed from the Depression era to a robust Americanism of power, patriotism and prosperity (the latter was not the actual case as anecdotal stories of rationing testify) that lasted for decades and grew to what, inescapably, must me labeled as The Era Of Images (1940s thru the present).

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