A photo essay is a story told with pictures, and Russell Lee's work in this documentary tradition is universally recognized as exemplary. Without a beginning or end, his photographic stories captured moments of significance to the people living them and conveyed this information transparently and directly.
Lee's images portray children at school reading and playing. He shows men framing walls, setting type, trucking off to distant beet fields, standing at attention, and bowing their heads. Women are seen tending to the sick, teaching, attending to the politics of the day, washing and cleaning. The images tell the story of children growing up, families coping, and the creation of a burgeoning middle class. When viewed together, the photographs reveal the coexistence of creativity, resourcefulness, accomplishment, and solidarity with inequality, dislocation, and inadequate basic financial and physical support systems.
Lee's photographs for the Study of the Spanish-Speaking People of Texas captured what he saw in Corpus Christi, San Antonio, San Angelo, and El Paso in 1949. His wife—journalist Jean Smith—gleaned additional details from conversations with individuals as Lee photographed them. This information and more gathered from the community was recorded in a log, with each frame of film identified by a unique number in the log. Through the log, the pictures were linked to specific socioeconomic conditions, addresses, families, and in many cases individuals, thus enhancing both their immediacy and their usefulness to researchers. When the notation "killed" appears in the log it indicates that Lee did not intend to print that specific image and therefore did not provide any identifying information for it. For this presentation, all reproducible frames that Lee shot for the project were included in order to provide researchers as complete a set as possible. The image captions were taken verbatim from the logs.
Cover Photo: A house in South San Angelo. Identifier: e_rl_14233_0054. The Russell Lee Photographic Collection, Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.