Skip to NavSkip to Content

 
The University of Texas at Austin

Exhibits

Russell Lee Photograph Collection - Excerpt from Introduction - Page 9

Excerpt from "There Was A Job To Do" The Photographic Career of Russell Lee by J. B. Colson

union crisis in the coal-mining industry grew into a threat to the national economy. Lee was called back to government service to work with a federal survey of the miners' health and living conditions. The resulting 1947 publications depend on Lee's photography to validate information that words cannot make clear. Nor could words provide the emotional impact of seeing the faces of the miners and their families, as well as how they lived. These government reports also demonstrate the power of skillful presentation of informative but not necessarily great pictures. Two well-done but routine pictures of houses, one neat and comfortable, the other decaying and inadequate, presented on the same page, or five privies with notably different degrees of sanitation, are not visual art, or even notable photography, but they dramatically make a point. Here also, as with so many of his assignments, along with the routine work that served the job, Lee

Looking up at family pictures hanging at the top of a wall. Lee found social information in what people had and how they arranged things in their homes. FSA, 1930s.

Looking up at family pictures hanging at the top of a wall. Lee found social information in what people had and how they arranged things in their homes. FSA, 1930s.

produced a significant number of what his FSA colleague Dorothea Lange called "second lookers," photographs whose visual and human qualities endure beyond specific projects and time periods.

"There was a job to do," was Lee's frequent characterization of his efforts. History, he realized, would benefit from some of his work. He appreciated that and understood that some of his images were, indeed, "second lookers." Making art was not his concern.