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The University of Texas at Austin

Exhibits

Russell Lee Photograph Collection - Excerpt from Introduction - Page 1

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

Nearly forty rolls of film at the Center for American History record Lee's earliest photographic efforts, shot with a Contax model I 35 mm camera. Beginning in 1925, a market for quality 35 mm cameras was established with the Leica. The Contax 35 mm camera, which became Lee's first camera, was introduced in 1932 and offered features that rivaled those of the Leica. (Early Nikon rangefinder cameras were Japanese copies of this design.) The small, quiet camera was a fine tool for photographing natural action and candids.

Still, it was not an easy tool to use. There were no automatic settings; lens and shutter speeds had to be manually set. Focusing and framing meant looking into a tiny optical finder. Experience and judgment and skill were required. The 35 mm film was slow and grainy. Synchronizing flash with the camera's shutter was not possible. But Lee wanted to photograph real life, inside, at night, as people shopped, worked, and partied. With practice he got the

Two artists at work in the studio. 1936–1936.

Two artists at work in the studio. 1936–1936.

hang of handling the camera. His chemical experience was useful as he mastered photographic processing and improved the basic film speed available. He sometimes managed flash with the camera on a tripod, firing while the shutter was open for a relatively long time.

The variety of subject matter and mood in this early work is striking.

The well-known images of unemployed men on the streets of New York and desperate auctions of household goods in Woodstock are there, but so are artists, parties, and people shopping. He photographed farmers, political speeches, diners in various eating places, even a woman getting a facial, as well as dentures being made and a dentist working on a patient. He explored the variety of effort and equipment used to