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Thursday, 26 April 2012

Russell Lee: Small World (San Augustine, Texas, April 1939)

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Two farmers talking to popcorn man, Saturday afternoon

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Sign

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Timetable, Santa Fe railway station

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Arriving by train

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

The week's movie program

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Entrance to San Augustine County Fair

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Sign

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Saddle horse with supplies tied to post, Saturday afternoon

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Blacksmith shop

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Blacksmith at work in his shop

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Blacksmith at work

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Cutting grass

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Negro mowing lawn

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Negro mowing lawn

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Gas meters

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Farmer's wagon in town

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Men talking on the main street

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Farmers sitting on curb

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Farmers in town, Saturday afternoon

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Farmers in town, Saturday afternoon

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Mother and child in town, Saturday afternoon

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Farmer and daughter in wagon, Saturday afternoon

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Farmer's family in town, Saturday afternoon

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Farmer's family in town, Saturday afternoon

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Group of men on the courthouse square

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Old timers in front of courthouse

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Old timers in front of courthouse

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Old timers in front of courthouse

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Old time residents of San Augustine County in town, Saturday afternoon

Image, Source: digital file from original

Entrance to courthouse

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Farmers' vehicles parked near courthouse, Saturday afternoon

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Saturday afternoon

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Grocery store

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Street scene

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Children on back of automobile

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Farm people in automobile in town, Saturday afternoon

Image, Source: digital file from original neg.

Street scene

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Street scene

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Street scene

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Street scene

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Farmer sitting by fertilizer

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Negro farmer hauling fertilizer onto his truck

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Negro leaning on bale of hay

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Negro farmers sitting on back of automobile

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Negro farmers talking on the street

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Negro farmer with middle buster, planter and cultivator

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Negro farmer with supplies in town

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Negro farmer loading supplies into his wagon, Saturday afternoon

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Negro farmer with supplies and freshly pressed suit, Saturday afternoon

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Line of Negroes waiting to see the doctor, Saturday morning

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Negro sisters in town shopping

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Setting out seed for display on the sidewalk in early morning

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Clerk putting up seed

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Seed displayed for sale

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Farmer looking at seed which is displayed for sale

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Clerk and farmer looking at displayed seed

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Rural mailboxes displayed for sale

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Livestock auction house

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Table showing commission rates, livestock auction barn

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Cattle pens and farmers at auction yard

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Cattle coming down the runway between pens, auction yard

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Cattle pens and farmers at auction yard

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Cattle pens and farmers at auction yard

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Inspection of cattle and pens, auction yard

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Men sitting on fence on cattle auction yard

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Cattle auction

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Driver of the fire truck

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Ice melting on doorstep before bank opens

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Local banker addressing citizens' meeting

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Sign and symbol of the First National Bank

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

City treasurer


File:Railway express agency office.jpg


Railway express agency office

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Sign advertising electric cooperative

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Schoolchildren going to the movies

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Group of schoolchildren waiting to get in the movies

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Schoolchildren waiting in line to go to the movies

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Grade school

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Grade school children

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Schoolchildren

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Schoolchildren singing

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Schoolchildren at play

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Schoolchildren on shoot-the-chute

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Schoolchildren jumping rope

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Mass jumping of rope by schoolchildren

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Schoolchildren on circular swing

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Baseball game at recess, San Augustine grade school

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Schoolchildren

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

High school

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Boarding train

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Award to service station

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Service station

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Residence

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Church

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Church choir

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

People entering the church, Sunday morning




The younger generation in front of clothing store, Saturday afternoon


Photos by Russell Lee in San Augustine, Texas, April 1939 (Farm Security Administration Collection, Library of Congress)

24 comments:

ACravan said...

Viewed quickly or slowly pausing over each shot, this runs like a really fine movie, which makes all the Hollywood fare depicting similar scenes seem phonier than it ever seemed previously. Obviously that raises questions about film makers, movie studios, audiences and the way people choose and are given opportunities to spend their money for entertainment. (I'm not sure the issue of edification comes into this analysis, i.e., people go to the movies for entertainment and to school and, possibly, church, for edification.) A remarkable collection of pictures, beautifully compiled and arranged. Curtis

TC said...

Curtis, to note that these pictures have the makings of a movie is to go right to the heart of the matter.

Along with his work in Pie Town, New Mexico, Russell Lee's capture of Texas small town life in his 1939 San Augustine series stands as one of the salient documents of American rural social history.

Lonn Taylor, a Texas journalist, who knew Russell Lee in Austin in the 1970s, writes that Lee had been "assigned by [Farm Security Administration Historical Division photo project director Roy] Stryker to document labor, rural health problems, and farm mechanization, three matters of concern to the FSA, in Texas. Lee was assisted on his Texas trip by his wife, Jean, who wrote caption notes while Lee was taking pictures, helped develop the film in windowless hotel bathrooms, and kept track of the packages of negatives and prints that went back and forth to Washington.

"The Lees spent thirteen months in Texas, zigzagging across the state several times.

"When he and Jean were taking pictures on the square in San Augustine, Texas, they encountered a man who was familiar with traveling portrait photographers but had never met a photojournalist. 'I don’t have enough money to have my picture made,' the man told Lee, 'but I’d like to give you a quarter anyway.'"

The Lees, Taylor writes, "had gone to San Augustine, an East Texas town of about 2,000 people, to document hookworm, a disease associated with rural poverty. When they arrived, however, they discovered that hookworm was so controversial that the county nurse had nearly been fired for calling attention to it, and she was reluctant to cooperate with them. Lee told me that they were both worn out from travel and that the hotel in San Augustine served delicious meals, and so they decided to stay there for a few days and document the whole town. Lee shot about 300 photos in San Augustine, making it the best-documented small town in America."

"Lee’s photos have the quality of an eccentric family album. He had an open smile that crinkled his whole face and put his subjects completely at ease.

"Lee’s San Augustine photographs are among the most remarkable of all of his Texas pictures."

TC said...

Another writer, Richard Murphy, grew up in San Augustine and left in 1945. But after retirement in 1990 he set out on a quest to discover what he could about Russell Lee, for personal reasons. His father, at the time the San Augustine County Clerk, had appeared in one of Lee's 1939 San Augustine photos. And Richard Murphy himself, then an eleven year old boy, had appeared in another.

In a piece in American Heritage, Murphy recounts talking to his father, who had been the San Augustine County Clerk in 1939, about the visitor from Washington who had taken those pictures.

“'Yep, I vaguely recollect that gent.' He frowned at several of the photos I had clipped from a magazine. 'Came in the courthouse with a camera, must have been in 1938 or 1939. He was dressed like a farmer. Frankly, he looked kinda seedy, like one of those itinerant photographers who made the rounds during the Depression. He asked to take my picture, but I told him I didn’t want to buy any photos. He said he wasn’t trying to sell me anything. He was working for the government, some New Deal agency, so I let him take a few shots of me sitting at a table in front of the deed records.'

"Once I knew the photographer's name I still had questions: Why did he pick our little farm town as his subject? How was it that almost nobody saw him do his work? And were there other pictures of our town?

"I called Austin information and asked if there was a listing for Russell Lee. The operator gave me a number, and I dialed it with mounting excitement. A woman answered. I asked her if I could speak with Russell Lee.

“'I’m sorry, but Russell died a few years ago. Is there some way I might help you? I’m his wife, Jean Smith Lee.'

"I told her who I was and why I was calling, that I wanted to know about some pictures her husband had taken in San Augustine half a century earlier.

“'San Augustine?' she responded promptly. 'Oh, yes, that was one of the more pleasant places we visited that year. I was with Russ on that trip, helping him with flash pictures and writing captions and so on. Are you from there?'

“'Yes, but I was only eleven in 1939. Tell me, Mrs. Lee, why did you folks decide to photograph our town?'

“'Well, you had some interesting buildings and quaint characters there. Many people still came to town on horseback, and Russ saw a chance to catch rural America in transition. But to tell the truth, it wasn’t that so much as the food. You see, we’d been on the road for weeks, staying in those little country hotels and boardinghouses, and the food had been terrible. We happened upon San Augustine one evening and took a room at a hotel. It was a comfortable place, and the food was excellent.'

"I asked her if she knew any way to get hold of the entire series of her husband’s San Augustine pictures. She told me I was in luck: Some three hundred of them were on file in the Library of Congress...

"I said that was terrific, and then I posed the question that had been nagging me for years: 'Mrs. Lee, all your husband’s photos look remarkably natural. It’s as though his subjects were completely unaware of his presence. You two stayed in San Augustine almost a week and took hundreds of pictures, yet how is it that almost nobody remembers your even being here?'

“'Well, Russ liked to keep a low profile. And we always tried to blend in with the locals. In farm country we dressed like farmers. When we were photographing migrant workers, we dressed like migrants.'

"I told her how much I admired her husband’s work and asked about his technique.

“'Most of the time he used his thirty-five-millimeter Contax. Whenever possible he made use of available light, but for interior shots he often used several off-camera flash units.'

"I strained to recall that moment half a century ago when a flashbulb sizzled and Russell Lee froze a tiny moment of our lives, suspending us in time, eleven-year-olds forever."

Hazen said...

Another document of this period is, of course, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, compiled by James Agee and Walker Evans in rural Alabama, but which cut too close to the bone for Fortune Magazine ever to publish. I value that book more for Agee’s writing than for Evans’ iconic photos; and I like Evans’ work. But there’s a warmth to Lee’s images, sometimes a wry humor, which makes them appealing apart from their formal elements. Thanks to your “edification” here, Tom, we get a glimpse of why that is, and learn about the man and the collective enterprise that he and his wife brought off.

TC said...

Well, Hazen, like others of our generation, I went to church to that book (in the 1950s, right about the time I was busy "losing my religion").

Walker was the ultimate wild card at the FSA. The $5-a-day stipend everybody else made do with was chump change to him, he turned up his nose. When he was off taking the pictures that went into that book, nobody at the FSA heard from him for months on end, and resentments grew and lingered on that score. Dorothea Lange, for one, was bitter and outspoken about this toward the end of her life. But Walker pissed a lot of people off a lot of the time, and didn't seem much bothered by that. He went his own way and in the end turned his back on the FSA for greenback-er pastures. And the dream retainer with Fortune made a great deal of work possible for him, though as you say much of it never made it into the magazine. He was paid by Fortune, and very well paid at that, whether the work was used or not. An arrangement made in heaven.

What's even more astounding is how much good work he DID manage to get into the magazine.

This might be of interest:

Pan in the Weeds: Classical American Architecture (Walker Evans, Chicago 1947)

These past few years the documentarist Errol Morris has filled up many columns in the NY Times and latterly the better part of a book with a methodical debunking of the dramatic "staging" tactics employed by Walker and by Arthur Rothstein (the infamous cow-skull that moved). I think that's unfortunate in that it tends to obscure the tremendous contribution made by those two photographers. Their methods certainly differed from those of, say, Russ Lee and John Vachon. But genius comes in many guises, and I'm always grateful for everything in those old FSA archives.

departuredelayed said...

I love the comment about the cinematic quality of these images. Belá Tarr's recent The Turin Horse is evidence that an effective film can consist of nothing but nearly still images (or more precisely, moving images betrayed as essentially still). This is a world I surely do not know, having grown up in the South (but in a city), nearly two generations removed, and yet it feels coded into me somehow -- not now something lost, because neither is it something to which I would "return," but now a complex sediment perceptible only when it catches the light in that certain way.

TC said...

Brad,

That is an astonishing film. The brutal weight and substance of time, bearing down upon the soul -- both human and animal.

departuredelayed said...

Yes. I've been trying for a week to find the words to write about it. Unsuccessful each day, today included.

Nin Andrews said...

Wow, this is a lot of photos. I like photos better than film, oddly. I know that is not the norm. And as always I am not sure why I feel homesick for a time before my own, even when it doesn't look easy.

And of course, I am partial to the cow pictures. Memory city. Never thought I'd miss the heifers.

Nin Andrews said...

And I think I forgot to say--I really love the post. Maybe that goes without saying.

TC said...

Nin, I'm with you -- I make my own silent movies out of photos in sequence. My work with the archives (where the thumbnails are filed in random lots, often bewilderingly random) is largely a search for inner narrative structures, that is to say, structures hid or guessed at within the random and accidental archival filing orders. And Russell Lee's work really lends itself to that kind of pursuit. He always shot in series, in that respect working to build the raw makings of local-knowledge narratives about the places he and Jean visited. A storyteller really. (He came from a farm town in Illinois.)

The cow pictures... well, obviously San Augustine was a cow town. Small farms, mostly. The farmers checking out the seed with the careful eye of people who knew the struggle and trouble it took to get things to take birth in and grow up out of the ground. (You've been there.)

STEPHEN RATCLIFFE said...

Tom,

Yes, the series of still photographs as film narrative, of a place in a time gone by, black and white scenes with people no long here, all of it so poignant, some kind of reminder of where we all are now and where we are going. . .

4.26

grey whiteness of fog against invisible
top of ridge, deer walking across field
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

figure as evident in sketch,
which lacks ease that

“gets into the picture,” of
that which, “position”

whiteness of sun in clouds above ridge,
shadowed green pine on tip of sandspit

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Brilliant series of black-and-white stills with illuminating follow-up comments.

awyn said...

Wow, what a treat this was, and more so the appended notes re: the photographers. Viewers are drawn to different images; for me as well but they also came as a reminder of the the things that stay, and those that don't. Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper have been around for 70 years (!) (as has Lone Star Feeds in Nacogoches, TX) but rare today to see someone on a hot summer day dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and trousers wearing a fedora, pushing one of those old-style manual lawn mowers. Those things that endure, and those that don't. A remarkable posting. Thank you!

TC said...

Vassilis and Steve, yes, that black and white "still" world may be long gone, but Russell Lee's image of a palpable reality is not quite gone yet -- in the sense that we too, "still" alive, are brought "in[to] the picture" now... and with/in us, a lost past is recaptured, here, in this/our living moment.

Annie, I hear you loud and clear about the things that endure. It would be my guess that Russell Lee stayed on in that San Augustine hotel for a whole week, 73 years ago this month, not so much because of the good dinner fare (of course that probably made things a lot more pleasant than what the Lees had encountered out on the West Texas high plains, in towns like Abilene and Marfa) as because he sensed that in its cut-off-from-the-greater-world isolation the little East Texas town was a kind of time capsule, a place in which the enduring things of the past -- blacksmith, longsleeve shirt and fedora, mule, horse and wagon times -- still existed side by side with the coming age of the V-8 engine and the electric cooperative.

His portfolio seems to enclose a vanished time forever, as if caught in amber.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Cool. I see the world of Ramona Hawk and Pacomio Chacon--two friends I interviewed in Colorado who have passed on. This was the time of their youth with attention to clothes and hair and shoes and work. To eat was a big deal, always. It was important.

TC said...

The part of the past that passes on and the part that lingers a while in us are not always easy to keep separate, and hopefully this is a good thing... but good or bad, it is evidently the case, don't you think, Susan?

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Well, I am glad instead of feeling otherwise, all in all. A Buddist guy from Boulder told me that some relationships continue, grow, evolve, change, even when the (other) person is no longer here. How could that be true? It seems the evidence is here, now, and I like that idea. Reading your blog puts me in touch with Ed Dorn for example, and for that I am astonished and grateful--to keep learning plus more--more.

TC said...

Susan, I think it's totally true -- IF we conceive relationships to be that sort of one sided thing where we project, remember, even invent (& c.) another's presence... and then do all the "relationship work" ourselves, while also imagining (making up, guessing at, speculating upon & c.) the reaction/s of the gone one/s.

But of course it can be shaky ground, too.

Though I see no reason why we should not go on learning things from everyone we have known, even though they're gone, so long as we're still here.

But recent events have impressed in my mind the line "The dead don't know how swiftly we are coming to join them," which I wrote some time ago concerning a departed loved one.

And then a month ago, when I was myself in the process of crossing over to join them, and probably would have completed the crossing had it not been for the intervention of what's called Trauma Surgery, I found that it was impossible to know who was on which side, or going which way, and the whole business became so confusing that time and space went away and the problem grew and grew until it hit me, lying there immobilized and bleeding on the ER gurney: We Are Alone, Forever.

I kind of didn't like that, but at the time my feelings on the matter could not have been less relevant.

I think about and in my mind speak to Ed a lot. I don't know if he hears me. I imagine I see his face and hear his voice. But maybe I'm making it all up, out of vague probabilities, variously accurate (or inaccurate) memories, and other phantasmal stuff. No, not maybe, surely.

It's so much easier really for someone who's still alive to have a relationship with someone else who's still alive, even though one may well never have met the other person, nor have much chance of ever doing so.

For instance, as many light years as may separate you and me in however many universes, we are actually having this conversation, sort of.

TC said...

Susan,

This, by the by, was that poem, mentioned in fourth sentence of above comment.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Tom,
Yes, I see this. I was and am grateful that I found your blog after finally sitting down and reading World of Difference. Now I can continue learning from Ed, my teacher, even though it comes from you--know what I mean? That's what I was trying to say--that I feel lucky to view and read your immediate words--Ed's friend, biographer, inspiration--too. Some (a lot) of residue from Ed comes through. Maybe the intensity--the poe. The more I write, the more syrup gets poured--sorry--but it is more than that and "important" to my life. Ha, ha, too serious--now--your blog such a rich place to go to. Thanks from a detective just combing the area, just checking things out only to find out some connection I did not know about and open clues.
Susan

TC said...

Without connection, what is there. I esk ya.

Paul Liles said...

I wish my grandmother (Mildred Minton - 1893-1988)' was alive to see these pictures. She lived in the San Augustine and Geneva areas all of her life and probably knew a lot of these folks. What an awesome collection!! Thank you Russell Lee!!

TC said...

And thank you, Paul. Her memory stays green with your remembrance.