- Historic Sites
A LIFETIME AGO A QUIET STRANGER passed through the author’s hometown and came away with a record of both personal and national importance
December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
“Look, that’s my grandpa!” or “Hey, that’s my old algebra teacher” or “Holy mackerel, that’s me ? The most extraordinary thing about the pictures, aside from their quality, was the fact that nobody seemed to remember who took them or why. Apparently, way back in the “dirty thirties” a phantom photographer had moved among us silently as a shadow, like a Comanche raider in a Texian camp counting coup in the form of negatives.
I left San Augustine in 1945 and, after a two-year hitch in the Navy, lived and worked all over the country. But the mystery followed me.
Every now and then, over the next fifty years, I would casually open a magazine in the dentist’s office (or one of my children’s history or sociology textbooks, or a big volume of American photography my neighbor kept on her coffee table) and be confronted by another stark reminder of my impecunious past.
In 1990, retired and living back in San Augustine, I took a stab at solving the mystery. My father, Cecil Murphy, had served as the San Augustine county clerk for nearly forty years. That October I tested Dad’s memory.
“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.”
A circuit clicked in Dad’s memory. “Say, I’ve got something in the closet that might help you get to the bottom of this.”
He rummaged among his Zane Grey novels and old National Geographies until he found a clothbound volume.
Home Town , written by Sherwood Anderson and published in 1940 by the Alliance Book Corporation of New York, consisted of a series of essays extolling rural America. It was heavily illustrated with black-and-white photos of small-town life. I thumbed through the book and on page 24 found Dad sitting in front of his deed records. There were a number of other familiar faces in Home Town —businessmen, barbers, farmers, schoolchildren—in all, some twenty pictures featuring local people among the hundreds from small towns in other states. In the back of the book, I learned that all these images had been taken by photographers working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The ones from San Augustine were credited to Russell Lee. A little research in the public library later that day elicited the information that Lee had been sent around the country during the 1930s and 1940s by the Historical Section of the FSA. Under the direction of the Columbia University economics professor Roy Stryker, such distinguished photographers as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Carl Mydans, Arthur Rothstein—and Russell Lee—traveled throughout the United States making a pictorial record of the hard life of rural Americans. As these photographers recorded history, they also made some: Their pictures helped lay the foundation for modern photojournalism.
So now I knew the identity of the photographer, but I still had several questions: Why did Russell Lee pick our isolated little farm town as his subject? How was he able to do his work so unobtrusively that hardly anyone knew he was there? Most important of all, were there other 1939 photos that we had never seen?
From a book entitled Portrait of a Decade , written by F. Jack Hurley and published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1972, I learned that after his FSA job had played out, Lee and his wife settled down in Austin, where he taught photography at the University of Texas.