‘Russell Lee: A Documentarian’s Personal Kodachromes’ exhibition opens at Redwood Library

Photo credit: David Hansen

Source: Redwood Library

The Redwood Library & Athenæum announces the opening of its winter exhibition Russell Lee: A Documentarian’s Personal Kodachromes, a gathering of 67 rare color prints of Lee’s private photographs from the only and most complete set held anywhere in the world now belonging to the Redwood. Specially digitized and printed by Lee’s friend J.B. Colson, a University of Texas photojournalism professor and photography historian, and unseen until now, these remarkable color photographs were made by Lee on trips in the States, Canada, Mexico, and Norway during the 1950s and 1960s. 

Russell Lee (1903-86) will always be remembered as one of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration’s trio of great photographers—Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Lee—whose indelible images documented the Great Depression and launched documentary photography as a genre, first in the US and then across the globe. Lee’s legacy has largely rested on the haunting black and white photographs he produced for the FSA, such as the series shot in Texas and New Mexico during the years 1939-40. 

The exhibition large scale prints were made by Colson from scans produced using an older drum scanner, adjusted using a range of software suites, and printed using an Epson SureColor P800 printer on archival Canson Infinity Baryta Photographique paper, widely held to provide the best luster finish for brilliance, tonal range, and detail. 

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As color images, the exhibited prints make for a contrasting visual experience relative to the monochrome world documented in Lee’s FSA work. Yet they reveal a continuity in Lee’s lifelong engagement with the documentary tradition, his acute eye for detail, framing, and moment undiminished even here, in photographs that depart from the directed objectives of his professional photographs. As earlier in his career, Lee reveals himself to be one of the signal masters of the ‘candid,’ in photographs that have come down to us with little specific information about the context of their making. 

“Documentary photography, film and video remain a potent avenue for contemporary artists to challenge the political status quo. Yet the robust afterlives of documentary have also expanded it into a category so capacious as to be unwieldy. This focused exhibition—by highlighting Lee’s shift from black and white to color; from public to private; from recording poverty and unemployment to leisure and work—suggests how documentary recalibrates to times of disaster or stability even as it interrogates how these binaries still structure our understanding of the medium,” explains Dr. Leora Maltz-Leca, Redwood curator of contemporary projects and exhibition co-curator. 

Because the Lees left no record of why these photographs were made, we are driven to speculate. Many appear to be typical tourist pictures, taken to remind travelers of what they have seen. Organized largely according to locale, the exhibition opens with a tight grouping of six images of Norwegian town architecture (Bergen), displaying Lee’s penchant for rigidly structured compositions. Another brings together shots of both people and the industrial landscape of the Intercoastal Waterway, joining informal ‘candids’ of boaters with the formal parallels of cylindrical train wagons and silos. A large central grouping gathers images that reveal Lee’s affinity for the marine world of boats, dockworkers, and fishermen (fishing being his other great passion besides photography). A culminating section of some 30 photographs taken in Mexico gives the range of Lee’s interests: rural pottery makers and rustic market scenes, craggy landscapes with mounted cowboys, as well as urban park settings peopled by well-heeled city dwellers. A few are not vacation photos, like those of a Mexican railroad, El Chepe, in its first year of operation; these Lee intended to sell to National Geographic. The haunting picture of a worker walking near a loading slip in “Orange Barge” may have been a commercial assignment. 

Though largely divorced from the targeted purpose of his FSA photographs, the exhibited images nonetheless illustrate a certain continuity with his earlier work in the way that they elevate the quotidian activities of ordinary people. Lee, and especially his wife Jean, were committed to democratic politics and social justice, and the visual evidence of the Great Depression can be said to have forever influenced his photography. His color Kodachromes, like his FSA work, rely on close-ups, a clear, sharp-focus aesthetic, and essence-of-the-moment timing. Yet if his early work is characterized by a latent pathos, a palpable desire to reveal hardship, the show’s images take us to a more hopeful place. Where before American strength of character had surpassed despair, here beauty, community, the picturesque—and color—ennoble the human experience. 

“The late work of major figures, both the work itself and as an art historical category—be it Titian or Russell Lee—is always revealing, especially here, for an artist that is comparatively inscrutable, and whose story has heretofore been so narrowly fixed to a specific period and project. I want to thank J.B. Colson and William Stott for enabling us to bring these fascinating photographs to the Redwood and the Newport public,” affirmed Redwood Executive Director Benedict Leca. 

The exhibition will be on view in the Van Alen Gallery through April 5, 2020. 

The gallery presentation is made possible by a generous donation from Cornelius C. Bond and Ann E. Blackwell, and an in-kind donation by Sandra Liotus Lighting LLC 

About the Redwood Library & Athenæum: Chartered in 1747 by 46 prominent citizens of Newport with “nothing in view but the good of mankind,” the Redwood Library & Athenæum is a hybrid museum, rare book repository and research center, and the oldest continuously operating lending library still in its original structure, the nation’s oldest public Neo-classical building. Designed by Peter Harrison, the Library is a registered National Historic Landmark. 

The Redwood contains over 200,000 titles in its Circulating and Special Collections, with another 751 titles forming the Original Collection, purchased by the founders in 1750 and housed in the historic Harrison Room. Collections strengths include: colonial American art, history and material culture, early modern architecture and garden design, the history of Newport, Aquidneck Island and Rhode Island. The Redwood also possesses substantive holdings of historic printed 

materials, archives and private papers. Featured on permanent view is an exceptional collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portraits by such artists as John Smibert, Robert Feke and Gilbert Stuart, in addition to a range of sculpture, furniture, and decorative arts. Two gallery spaces feature temporary exhibitions, while the Redwood’s Reading Room, with its iconic green leather chairs and original Palladian windows, is a welcome sanctuary for visitors. Lectures, gallery talks, and musical events are scheduled throughout the year, and unique gift items and used books are available in the gift shop. 

As an athenæum born of the American Enlightenment values of liberty, equality and democracy, and capitalizing on its unique position as a catalyst for intellectual pursuit across periods and disciplines, the Redwood is approaching its fourth century in the service of a rigorous and accessible humanities education for the benefit of the widest possible audience.

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