That's a Lot of Photos

With more than 140 photos,

Russell Lee Photographs

is fat.

With a price of $50 and weighing in at almost five pounds, that’s $10 per pound.

I wish Linda Peterson, Head of Photographic and Digital Archives at the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin (how’s that for a title?) and the person responsible for selecting the photographs for the book, had put this baby on the Atkins Diet.

That said, this lifetime collection of Lee’s work outside the Farm Security Administration is also phat. But it took me a second time through to realize that.

Usually, my diminutive attention span demands that first I look at a book’s photographs and then, if I find them worthy, I go back and read the obviously laudatory forward (this one is by John Szarkowski, former director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) and introduction (by J.B. Colson, Professor Emeritus of Journalism at UT, and a friend of Lee’s).

And in this case, after the first go-round, I was disappointed, cool black cover and Mr. M.M.A. be damned There, I said it. Let the photo-gods wreak their vengeance on this pretentious, wannabe-great photographer/writer.

Thankfully, for the sake of this review, I was forced to start over, and read Szarkowski’s forward:

“His photographs - many of them - were odder and more unsettling on second viewing than they seemed at first glance. Their content was wrapped in a style that was, or appeared to be, unashamedly native. Lee’s pictures looked as functional and blunt and free of pretension as an underwear button.”

One of my favorite photographs appears on page 98: two men comparing the time on their pocket watches. It’s a real photographic moment. As Szarkowski wrote, Lee’s photographs are more interesting because of the content than the aesthetics.

“In the years around 1939,” he writes, “the intuition of Russell Lee often found itself attracted to material that seemed as dumb as fence posts, as common as dirt, as flat as the prairie, out of which he made pictures that looked as artless as a good country quilt.”

One of my favorite aspects of Lee’s work is his seeming invisibility. There are very few photographs where the subjects are looking at the camera.

This is a technique that Colson explains in the introduction:

“[H]e would be quietly standing with camera held low until he saw the moment; then the camera would rise and return in what seemed to be one graceful movement, passing by his eye as he clicked. If you were the subject, you had to be looking at him at the right moment to know you’d been photographed. Thus we learned how Russell Lee got some of the finest candids in the history of photography.”

One problem I have with the book is the organization. I would have preferred a chronological approach versus the four sections that Peterson used: 1.) The human condition, 2.) Politics, 3.) Travel and 4.) Texas.

In the first section there are a half dozen photos from New York in 1935 and 1936 and then suddenly it’s 1949 and we’re in Texas then back to 1936 NYC and once more back to 1949 Texas. It gives no sense of his development and maturation process as a photographer.

Probably my least favorite section is the Travel section. There are just too many snapshots that remind me of photos my mom takes when she travels.

Another problem I have is including more than one photo from a particular situation. This is where I think it would have been interesting to include Lee’s contact sheets. Seven photographs from the Texas Cowboy Reunion is absurd and makes me feel as though the editor is just trying to stretch out this section to equal the others.

While I do think this is a very good coffee-table photography book -- definitely worthy of a second look (or buying, if your wallet permits) -- it reminds me of the current trend of longer and longer movies.

Please, people, less really is more. -- Daniel Kramer

Russell Lee Photographs, University of Texas Press, $50

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