December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
A LIFETIME AGO A QUIET STRANGER passed through the author’s hometown and came away with a record of both personal and national importance
“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.
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.”
“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.
The next morning I was waiting at the door when the public library opened at nine. I headed straight for the single viewer, quickly loaded my microfilm—and stepped back in time.
The first part of the reel consisted of pictures made in Marshall, Lufkin, Houston, and other Texas cities by various FSA photographers. Then, about halfway through the ninety-five-foot reel, I came to what I had been looking for.
A typewritten introduction to Series 551 stated: “San Augustine, Texas. April, 1939. Small town in farming region on Saturday afternoon. Activity and parked vehicles in court house square. Negro and white farmers and families in town. Automobiles, wagons, mules, horses, etc.…”
Faces from my boyhood looked out at me as I scrolled on through Series 551 and 552. Lee had taken pictures of almost everyone in the courthouse and jail. There were several shots of County Judge R. N. Stripling and the county commissioners, and there was Dad again, sitting at his typewriter recording an oil and gas lease. Among other candid shots of county officials, I recognized Justice of the Peace Maurice Armstrong, Tax Collector McNeil Sanders, and Sheriff Hoyt Marshall.
As I neared the end of the series, I experienced a sudden breathlessness.
The next group of images had been made at the grammar school. As I neared the end of Series 553, Library of Congress Photo No. 33065-D slid into view: “San Augustine, Texas. April, 1939. Grade school children making books from comic strips.” The shot showed several fourth or fifth graders huddled around a blond boy who was busy pulling the staples from a Weekly Reader magazine in order to remove the comic section entitled “The Circus and Sue.” I immediately recognized my friends Maurice Mitchell, Charles Withers, and James Hooker. Several other faces looked familiar, but I couldn’t put names to them. And that boy in the center, the towhead in striped overalls, mouth screwed sideways as he wielded the staple puller…
I strained to recall that moment half a century ago when a flashbulb sizzled and Russell Lee’s Contax froze a tiny moment of our lives, suspending Charles, Maurice, James, and me in time, eleven-year-olds forever. I had some sense of a craggy-faced man pointing a camera and the flash so startling me that I dropped the magazine.
For I was the boy in the striped overalls. No question about it. Fifty-odd years ago the famous FSA photographer had snapped my picture, and now I was seeing it for the first time.
Looking at Photo No. 33065-D, I felt a sense of completion, as if my life had come full circle and the final loose ends had been neatly tied together. No man wants to slide down the shoot-the-chutes of life without leaving some bit of personal graffiti to mark his passage, even if it’s nothing more than his handprint in wet cement or his initials carved on a sycamore tree. Now, out of the blue, a great photographer had given my friends and me a small but real immortality.