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University of Texas at Austin

Russell Lee:

An Inventory of His Photography Collection at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Lee, Russell, 1903-1986
Title: Russell Lee Photography Collection
Dates: 1930s-1966
Extent: 955 items (37 linear feet)
Abstract: The collection consists of 955 photographs by Russell Lee (American, 1903-1986) of various subjects including work done in Italy and Texas, also work done for the Farm Service Administration, Air Transport Command, Standard Oil (New Jersey), Jones & Laughlin Steel (Pittsburgh, PA), and a medical survey.
Call Number: Photography Collection PH-00082
Language: English
Access: Open for research. Please note: Transparencies may be accessed but require 24 hours advance notice. Negatives cannot be accessed without curatorial approval. Light sensitive materials must be viewed under low-level lighting. Some materials may be restricted from viewing. To make an appointment or to reserve photography materials, please contact the Center's staff at

Administrative Information

Acquisition: Gifts of Russell and Jean Lee, 1961, an anonymous donor, 1979, Jean Lee, 1986 (G 2908), Tom Livesay, 2003 (G 12337), an anonymous donor, 2004 (G 12406), and Howard Greenburg, 2009 (09-12-011-G), and purchased, 2015 (15-01-005-P).
Processed by: HRC Staff

Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Biographical Sketch

Russell Lee (American, 1903-1986) was born on July 21, 1903, and reared in Ottowa, Illinois. He attented Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, and graduated in 1925 with a degree in chemical engineering. He obtained employment as an engineer and returned to Illinois, where he married painter Doris Emrick. Eventually Lee left engineering to become a painter, but soon found he enjoyed taking photographs when he began using photography to assist his painting. His background as a chemical engineer led to experiments with developing chemicals and techniques.
In 1936, Lee joined a group of photographers working with the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Under the leadership of Roy Stryker, the FSA photographers documented the ravages of the Great Depression and shaped the way Americans viewed poverty. Lee and Emrick divorced in 1938, and he met journalist Jean Smith, whom he later married. Lee remained with the FSA until the end of the photography project in 1943.
During World War II, Lee served with the Air Transport Command, a unit of the United States Air Force. While part of that unit Lee took photographs documenting the daily lives of airmen, their equipment, and places they served. After his service, Lee continued to work as a photographer. He was hired by the Department of the Interior to document conditions of miners and their families in Appalachia, and he produced photographs for the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey and Jones & Laughlin Steel.
Lee settled in Austin after World War II and established the first photography curriculum in the Department of Art at the University of Texas (UT) in 1958. He remained on the faculty until his retirement in 1974; he continued an informal and active relationship with the photography faculty and students at UT until his death. He was the first influential photographer at the university and numbered among his many former students are such photographers as Ave Bonar, Jim Bones, Jimmie Jalapeeno and John Christian. Lee died on August 28, 1986.

Scope and Contents

Scope and Contents

Although Russell Lee is most famous for his long career as a photographer with the Farm Security Administration, the photographs in the Russell Lee Photography Collection cover a wide range of subjects, nearly all of which reflect his compassionate commitment to people and the lives they led. Much of the collection is made up of a posthumous gift from the photographer of all the vintage original prints remaining in his estate at his death. Lee's photographs for the Farm Security Administration, taken between 1936-1942, make up a large part of the collection. Other important series are a medical survey of conditions in the coal mining industry; a series Lee took while serving with the Air Tranport Command; work for the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey and Jones & Laughlin Steel; and a portfolio taken in Italy. The collection is divided into eight series. Series I consists of prints from the Farm Security Administration. Included as part of the FSA images is a series of photographs Lee took in Pie Town, New Mexico in 1940. Series II contains images Lee made during his service in the Air Tranport Command. In 1946 the Department of the Interior worked with the United Mine Workers to survey conditions in the coalfields of Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. Lee was hired to document the lives of coal miners and their families. This series (Series III) includes images of schoolchildren, living conditions, medical care, sanitary conditions, worshippers at church, families, and workers at the mines. Series IV consists of photographs Lee took for the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey; photographs for Jones & Laughlin Steel are in Series VI. Series V and VII contain images of Texas and Italy, while Series VIII is made up of photatographs Lee took as he began to explore photography and two from Norway much later in his career.

Series Outline

  • Series I. Farm Security Administration, 1936-1942
  • Series II. Air Transport Command, 1943-1945
  • Series III. Department of the Interior, medical survey of coal miners, 1946-1947
  • Series IV. Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, 1947-1964
  • Series V. Texas, 1943-1960
  • Series VI. Jones & Laughlin Steel, 1952-1964
  • Series VII. Italy, 1960
  • Series VIII. Other work, circa 1935-1966

Related Material

Additional works by Russell Lee can be found in the Standard Oil Company Photography Collection (PH-00109). Works by other photographers who worked for the Farm Security Administration include the Sanora Babb Literary File Photography Collection (PH-01826), the Walker Evans Photography Collection (PH-00065), the Dorothea Lange Photography Collection (PH-01258), Carl Mydans Photography Collection (PH-02054), and the Arthur Rothstein Photography Collection (PH-01381).

Index Terms


Lee, Russell, 1903-1986.


African American coal miners--Kentucky.
Children of coal miners.
Coal mines and mining.
Dry farming.
Dust Bowl Era, 1931-1939.
Great Depression.
Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation.
Standard Oil Company of New Jersey.
United States. Army Air Forces. Air Transport Command.
United States. Department of the Interior.
United States. Farm Security Administration.
United States. Farm Security Administration--Photograph collections.
United States. Work Projects Administration.


New Mexico.
Pie Town (N.M.).
West Virginia.

Document Types

Documentary photography.
Dye transfer prints.
Gelatin silver prints.

Item List