A Look at Texas Through Russell Lee's Lens

May 25, 2016

What do Ada Lovelace, Adolf Hitler, Kanye West, Donald Trump, Elisabet Ney and even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson all have in common? At one point, they were all in the running to replace Robert E. Lee as the namesake of a Hyde Park elementary school. 

Earlier this week, the Austin School Board finally decided on someone to replace the Confederate general: Russell Lee, the nationally lauded photographer. He moved to Austin in 1947 and established UT Austin’s photography department, serving as its first instructor. Below are a few of Lee's photographs from his time in Central Texas. 

Prior to his move to Austin, Lee pioneered early documentary photography, capturing Depression-era life and the settling of Japanese-American internment camps with his wife Jean Smith for the Farm Security Administration. During World War II he served as a reconnaissance photographer for the Air Transport Command, taking referential photographs of airstrips for pilots who would often approach without radio contact. 

After the war, Lee moved to Austin and quickly settled into Central Texas life, capturing Austin scenes between freelance gigs for Texas Quarterly, Standard Oil and other clients.

Young cowboys at the Austin Livestock Show, 1954.
Credit Lee Russell, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History
Young girl with her prize sheep, Austin Fat Stock Show, 1956
Credit Lee Russell, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

Lee also befriended a swathe of Austin luminaries, including writers Hart Stillwell and J. Frank Dobie (pictured below) and Austin activist Conrad Fath, with whom he occasionally entered regional bass fishing tournaments.

A Lee photo of Austin writers Hart Stillwell (left) and J. Frank Dobie at Joe Small's barbecue in Wimberley around 1957.
Credit Russell Lee, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

Lee also photographed his friend Ralph Yarborough's gubernatorial campaign in 1954. That year, Yarborough challenged incumbent Gov. Allan Shivers – he had done so two years before, as well – and narrowly lost to Shivers before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1957. 

Yarborough and his campaign workers on July 4, 1954 in Austin at the Driskill Hotel.
Credit Russell Lee, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

Lee also shot the contentious close of the 58th Legislature, which gaveled out of its regular session at 2 a.m. on the morning of May 25th, 1963, three days before it was officially slated to end. After heated budget discussions, lawmakers decided to call it a short session after working marathon hours to get the budget to the House floor. Gov. John Connally later tore apart the budget, with a lengthy list of line item vetoes

The close of the 58th Legislature. Left to Right: Rep. Bob Johnson, Rep. Bill Heatley (speaking) and Rep. Maurice Pipkin.

One of Lee's series examined the state hospitals of Texas, including the near-defunct Texas Confederate Home in Austin located off Sixth Street. Lee's February 1958 photos captured the facility in its twilight. While the last Confederate veteran staying in the hospital died years earlier in 1954, the facility became a repository for patients from across the state. It was closed in 1963 and patients were sent to the Kerrville State Hospital before the building was demolished in 1970.

Credit Russell Lee, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

In 1965, a seven-part retrospective exhibit of Lee's work was displayed at the University of Texas, after which the university asked Lee to help develop its photography department. He taught at UT until 1973. In an interview with the Austin American-Statesman, Lee recalled his accidental career transition from a chemical engineer to a struggling painter to an aspiring photographer. 

"When I saw prints from the first roll of film," he recalled, "I knew that photography was my medium, and I have never painted or even sketched again."