The Other R. Lee

The Other R. Lee

When an Austin elementary school got a new name this year, it honored the legacy of the man who founded UT’s photography program more than a half-century ago.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Austin’s photography community—professors, professionals, and the occasional lucky TA or student—had a tradition: Friday lunch with Russell Lee, the retired photographer who founded the UT photography program in 1965. “Everyone scheduled their Friday afternoons to have lunch with him,” journalism professor Dennis Darling says. The afternoon always started with single malt scotch and good conversation at the home Lee shared with his wife, Jean, on West Avenue near campus. Then the rotating group of about 10 people would head to Taylor for ribs and brisket at Louie Mueller Barbecue, where photography was the main topic of conversation, though they would also discuss politics, fly fishing, and bird hunting. And at the center of it all was Lee. “Everyone wanted to sit near him, show him their latest work, and ask his advice,” says Stephen Clark, owner of Stephen Clark Gallery, who was instrumental in the successful effort this May to change the name of Austin’s Robert E. Lee Elementary School to Russell Lee Elementary.

Although not a trained professor—Lee was actually a chemical engineer and painter before becoming a photographer—he quickly developed a reputation as an outgoing, friendly teacher who genuinely enjoyed his students. “He was a teacher with a capital T,” says former student Margaret Harman, BFA ’70, MFA ’80, who is now the audiovisual archives specialist at the LBJ Library and spearheaded a scholarship in Lee’s name in 2011. “He loved the back-and-forth with students and went out of his way to demystify photography for us. He wanted to make sure we got it.”


The Other R. Lee

But one thing the modest photographer didn’t share with students was his impressive resume. “I was raving about him to someone, saying what a great teacher he was, and they said, ‘Don’tyou know who he is?’ And I said, ‘He’s the photo teacher,’” Harman laughs. “He didn’t show us much of his work. He had no ego.”

Harman soon learned that Lee was one of more than a dozen photographers who documented the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, including in his iconic series “Pietown U.S.A.” While he did not become as famous as some of e_rl_0023_pubhis fellow shooters, including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, Lee was well-known for his straightforward documentary-style images, eye for detail, and knack for capturing his subjects with dignity. “He’d go to a town and walk around for a day without his camera, telling people who he was and why he was there,” explains Roy Flukinger, MA ’77, senior research curator of photography at the Harry Ransom Center and a member of the Friday lunch group. “And then he’d go back the next day and just become part of the scene. He got absorbed into the daily life around him.”

After his stint at FSA, Lee went on to photograph coal miners and their working conditions and landing fields in North Africa, India, and China during World War II and was commissioned by Standard Oil to document the booming oil industry after the war. He also did several major photography series, including an examination of Spanish-speaking people in Texas, Senator Ralph Yarborough’s campaigns, and a portfolio of Italy, which can all be viewed at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, where he donated his collection of more than 30,000 prints, negatives, and slides.

Although he was only an instructor at UT for eight years, retiring in 1973, Lee left a lasting impression on his students and kept up his relationships with those in the lunch group until his death from cancer in 1986. What would the humble man have thought of having a school named after him? “We talked about that,” Clark says, “and we think his reaction would have been ‘aw shucks.’”

Photos (from top): Family group moving from Texas to Wyoming to work in sugar beet fields, 1949; a woman in Calabria, Italy, 1960; veteran studying for night class; Russell Lee standing on a chair with a camera, San Donato, Italy, 1960; young man on a street corner, 1951. Photos by Russell Lee, courtesy Briscoe Center for American History.



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