Just months before he died of cancer in August 1986, Russell Lee transferred his photographic archive and all reproduction and use rights held by him to The University of Texas Center for American History (CAH), then known as the Barker Texas History Center. Lee's legacy to the University and to the people of Texas includes over 27,000 negatives, 3,600 prints, 700 slides, and a handful of color transparencies. Almost all the images were created after Lee had achieved recognition as a prolific, technically proficient, and sensitive photographer. Some of his best known work was completed for the Historical Section of the U.S. Farm Security Administration under the direction of Roy Stryker between 1936 and 1942.
The collection of work donated to the Center spans three of the four decades during which Lee and his second wife, journalist Jean Smith, resided in Texas. During that time Lee traveled on assignment to the south and east coasts of the United States, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Italy, but his central focus was the social and political life of Texas. With his cameras, Lee captured parades, festivals, barbecues, concerts, rodeos, and political rallies. His wife's journalistic and political interests brought him very close to the campaigns of Ralph Yarborough and Henry Gonzales during the 1950s.
Lee wanted to make his works accessible to the public. He specified that his gift should be made available in a place that is "friendly to people." In conversation with CAH director Don E. Carleton during the gift transfer, Lee pointed out his favorite photographs and requested that two specific series be promoted for research and publication. One of the two series of photographs Lee highlighted was the Study of the Spanish-Speaking People of Texas, which is presented here.
Lee's field notes provide documentation for each frame of film he shot. These notes and transcripts related to his projects are included with the images. The collection also holds correspondence and manuscripts, as well as copies of published works that included his photographs. The available documentation establishes the images as historical records by pinpointing the images in a specific time, place, and context. Many of the captions name or otherwise identify the actors and circumstances and clarify their appearance in the images.
Cover Photo: People leaving church. Identifier: e_rl_13918r1_0028. The Russell Lee Photographic Collection, Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.