Skip to Main Content
Harry Ransom Center homepage

Go Out and Look

The Photography of Russell Lee

April 20, 2004 – October 17, 2004

The Harry Ransom Center's exhibition "Go Out and Look: The Photography of Russell Lee" is designed to honor Lee's long association with Texas and The University of Texas at Austin and to celebrate his life and career.

Running from April 20 through Oct. 17 in the Ransom Center Galleries, the exhibition showcases Lee (1903-1986), who earned the largest international and historic reputation of any Austin-based photographer.

Lee's impact as a social documentarian and artist was established when he forsook careers in engineering and painting and became the most prolific and one of the best known photographers for Roy Stryker's now-legendary U.S. Farm Security Administration (FSA) between 1936 and 1942.

After working for the FSA Lee built upon his work with equally impressive photography for the U.S. Army's Air Transport Command during World War II and then with the U.S. Department of the Interior's Survey of Mine Health and Safety in the mid-1940s. Lee had become a well-established and important American photographer by the time he and his wife, Jean, made Austin their home in 1947.

By then Lee was largely able to pick and choose his projects and completed his professional career with pioneering work for Standard Oil of New Jersey, Jones & Laughlin Steel and the "Texas Observer" as well as with documentation of the political and social scene around the state. Among the many friends whom Russell knew and sometimes photographed were such Texas luminaries as John Henry Faulk, Ralph Yarborough, Creekmore Fath, Maury Maverick Jr., William Arrowsmith and Hart Stilwell.

Lee began his association with The University of Texas with the publication of his "Italian Portfolio" -- commissioned by Arrowsmith as a special 1961 edition of "Texas Quarterly." A major 332-piece traveling retrospective of his work was mounted at The University of Texas Art Museum in 1965 before going on to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It would lead to his appointment to the faculty of The University of Texas Art Department in that same year.

During the next eight years Lee established and developed the first photography program in the Art Department and focused all his photographic activities into teaching. He turned out hundreds of students before he was required to retire in 1973.

Even then, however, he continued to be an active part of the Austin and university photographic communities by remaining accessible to faculty, students, photographers, historians, social reformers, politicians and visitors throughout the remaining years of his life.

The photographs in the exhibition are drawn entirely from the Russell Lee Master Print Collection in the Harry Ransom Center's Photography Department -- a gift of more than 800 photographs printed by the photographer himself and bequeathed to the Ransom Center upon his death.

The exhibition images are presented in a general chronological fashion and feature a broad range of subject matter from most of Lee's subject portfolios made throughout his career, with a special concentration upon his pioneering FSA work. Other general bodies of work include images from such above-named periods as the Air Transport Command, the U.S. Coal Mines Survey, the Standard Oil years, the final decades in Texas and the famous but little-seen body of work that he did in Italy for the university's "Texas Quarterly."

"Unlike a retrospective exhibition, which seeks a thematic approach to essaying critical distinctions within a lifetime of work, this show is intended to be chiefly celebratory, commemorating the richness of Lee's life, career, popularity and continuing influence," said Roy Flukinger, the Ransom Center's senior curator of photography and film and curator of the exhibition.

The title of the show comes from Lee himself. Once, over beer and barbeque with a number of friends and students, he was asked what his legacy would be. He chuckled and replied: "Just say that I made people go out and look!"