Transcript of Russell Lee

This is Texas Originals. From Humanities Texas, for the advancement of heritage, culture, and education.

Russell Lee was one of the most acclaimed American photographers of the twentieth century. Born in Illinois in 1903, he lived half of his life in the Midwest, San Francisco, and New York, before finally settling in Austin.

Dissatisfied with a career in chemical engineering, Lee turned to painting, and then photography. He developed his distinctive style while documenting the effects of the Great Depression on rural communities for the Farm Security Administration. Lee's iconic images of ordinary Americans in extraordinary circumstances helped inspire the form now known as documentary photography.

By the time Lee settled in Austin, in 1947, his reputation as a photographer was well established. From his base in Texas, he continued to travel the world, recording subjects that ranged from the oil fields of Saudi Arabia to life in the distinct regions of Italy.

Lee also trained his lens on Texas. He photographed Spanish-speaking communities across the state and the political campaigns of Ralph Yarborough and Allan Shivers. Lee helped establish the photography program in the art department at the University of Texas, where he taught until his retirement.

Lee died in 1986, leaving a body of work that reveals the truth and dignity of his subjects. As one curator noted, "His essential compassion for the human condition shines forth in every image."

More information about Russell Lee and other Texas Originals is available at This program is produced by Houston Public Radio and Humanities Texas, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.