Russell Lee’s designs

R Lee Secondhand Tires, San Marcos, Texas, 1940

Russell Lee, Secondhand Tyres, San Marcos, Texas, 1940

If you do a Google Image search of Russell Lee, the 1930s Farm Security photographer, you will see that his typical compositions are busy and complex, and show how he liked to get involved in the subject. These three images are not typical, but they are great compositions anyway.

In the top one, he’s working in a similar mode to his FSA colleague Walker Evans, the straight frontal gaze at a two-dimensional vernacular subject.

R-Lee-Hidalgo

Russell Lee, Hidalgo, Texas, 1939

This image of a showcase kitchen breaks one rule of photography, don’t fire flash straight at a reflective surface – the window in the centre bounced it straight back at the camera. But he was clearly interested in the abstract pattern of the cupboards, and it’s one of his most popular images.

R-Lee-Harlingen-Texas-39

Russell Lee, Harlingen, Texas, 1939

This more classical composition is like a late Paul Strand, an even-tempered arrangement of forms to convey some idea about the beauty and texture of humble rural life.

Russell Lee had a long career in photography, so it’s not surprising that his work is varied in style. Working photographers often don’t like the idea that they may even have a style because they think of themselves as all-round professionals, able to do any kind of job.

Despite that, it’s interesting to look at an artist’s un-typical works, which often get lost in the effort to establish them as distinctive and individual. I’ll bet there’s a lot of great work out there that is never seen simply because it doesn’t fit the template of style for each artist.

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