The Way Back: Between Friends

Texas writers Hart Stilwell (left) and J. Frank Dobie at Joe Small’s barbecue, Austin, Texas, circa 1975.

When Russell Lee completed his six-year tenure as a documentary photographer for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration in 1942, his director called him a “taxonomist with a camera.” That’s because the Illinois-born Lee was adept at delineating for the viewer real human beings in complex social settings. After World War II, Lee moved to Austin, and from 1965–73, his classes became essential to UT Austin photography students.

Two of Lee’s closest friends were the writers Hart Stilwell, BJ ’24, and J. Frank Dobie, pictured here at Joe Small’s barbecue, circa 1957. Caught mid-conversation, the image captures two giants of Texas letters, both fierce social and political critics. On this day, Stilwell is the serious one—Stetson on, shirt tucked in—and he seems fired up. Dobie, the UT English professor, is his opposite: relaxed, hair mussed, sleeves rolled up, a smile beaming. Though Lee was merely catching a moment between pals over beers, the enduring allure of the image is in its striking composition.

CREDIT: Russell Lee Photograph Collection, e_rl_0182, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin


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