Texas Testament

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.”

“Do you recall which hotel? We only had two at that time, the Moss and the Hampton.”

“The Hampton—that’s the one. Surprisingly nice place for such a small town. They had a big dining room with proper tablecloths, proper silverware—things we weren’t used to on this trip.”

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, and I could get a microfilm of the entire set for around thirty dollars.

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 Haifa century ago when a flashbulb sizzled and Russell Lee froze a tiny moment of our lives, suspending us in time, eleven-year-olds forever.

“Did he develop his own pictures, like Dorothea Lange?”

“Oh, no, he just sent the film to Washington to be developed. We didn’t see the results for days, sometimes weeks.”

She went on to speak a bit about the years after the breakup of the FSA Historical Section in 1943. Lee joined the Army Air Forces and served as an aerial photographer, then worked for a while helping Roy Stryker develop a photography department for the Standard Oil Company. The couple moved to Austin in the late forties. He died in 1986, but his photographic legacy lives on, becoming more valuable with each passing year.

Immediately after my conversation with Jean Lee, I put in a call to the Library of Congress and placed an order for a microfilm of the San Augustine pictures.

On a mid-December day in 1992 a United Parcel Service truck stopped in front of our house in San Augustine, and a man came to the front door with a package. Inside the small box labeled “U.S. Farm Security and Office of War Information” was a reel of microfilm. I unwound the first few feet and held it up to the light, but the tiny black-and-white images were too small to identify.