Title page for ETD etd-04062004-154900


Type of Document Master's Thesis
Author Mitchell, Brent
URN etd-04062004-154900
Title Capturing the Ordinary: Russell Lee in Southeastern Louisiana
Degree Master of Arts (M.A.)
Department Art History
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Patricia Lawrence Committee Chair
Darius Spieth Committee Member
Thomas Neff Committee Member
Keywords
  • strawberry
  • Ponchatoula
  • Hammond
  • Louisiana
  • farm security administration
  • photography
  • Russell Lee
  • American photography
Date of Defense 2004-03-19
Availability unrestricted
Abstract
The photographers who worked for the Farm Security Administration Historical Section from 1935-1942 produced a large body of photographic work that now resides in the Library of Congress. These photographs serve as valuable visual resources for depicting an economically deprived section of America's population during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Some of these photographers, like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, are widely recognized for their work, while others remain obscure. Russell Lee falls into the latter category, although he contributed the largest number of captioned photographs to the FSA photographic files.

This paper explores Lee's photographic techniques in relation to other FSA photographers who addressed similar subject matter. In order to limit the scope of my study, I chose to investigate the photographs Lee took in southeastern Louisiana in April 1939 as part of an assignment on strawberry farming. This batch of approximately 150 black and white photographs offers insight into Lee's working methods. Lee’s imagery reveals the similarities and differences between his photographic style and that of his FSA colleagues, such as Evans, Lange, and Ben Shahn.

I will argue that Lee's anonymity is the result of his approach to photography, privileging a large quantity of pictures of a given subject or location over searching for a single remarkable image that captured the essence of the situation. His photographs, while technically precise, often lack the visual impact found in the work of Evans and Lange. Though Lee's artistic vision may not have been as keen as some of his colleagues', Lee's straightforward pictorial style bestows a hitherto undervalued importance to his contribution to the FSA photographic files. He captured ordinary moments in the lives of human beings suffering during one of America's bleakest periods. In southeastern Louisiana, Lee took photographs of migrant workers at home and in the fields. He also visited a strawberry auction and documented the economic aspects of the agribusiness, while paying attention to such details as the shipping of strawberries on refrigerated rail cars. This collection of photographs underlines Lee’s fondness for filling his compositions with more visual information rather than less.

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