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).
Daragh Vaughn from Dublin Ireland at McDonald’s in Truth or Consequences, NM. He had had surgery for a genetic deformity. He already had the same surgery on his other hand. “To top that,” he says in his Irish brogue, “I’m a piano player!”
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.
In his writings and in conversations, Lee expressed admiration for this community.
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.
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.
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?
Fort Sumner, Big Gun in the Head, NM, July 2010 by Bruce Berman
You go through a long long desert coming from the west and the very beginnings of another eco-system begins, finally, in Fort Sumner. You can feel a little bit of moisture in the air. There are trees. You are no longer in “The West.”
Billy the Kid
Depending on which way you’re heading, Fort Sumner is the fulcrum.
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.
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.