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Table of Contents Introduction Early Documentary Photography Modern Documentary Photography Who Took the Photograph? Why and For Whom Was the Photograph Taken? How Was the Photograph Taken? What can Companion Images Tell Us? How Was the Photograph Presented? Model Interpretation Documentary Photography Online Annotated Bibliography Try It Yourself Download Entire Essay (Acrobat PDF) Model Interpretation

Over the past several years, I have been working on a book on FSA photography in which I hope to show the influence of 1930s racial attitudes on the photographs taken by Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, and their colleagues. I have been particularly interested in a group of photographs that Russell Lee took of Mexican households in San Antonio and the Rio Grande valley in the winter and spring of 1939. The following images are typical of Lee’s photographic coverage of housing and health conditions in the several Mexican enclaves he visited. Since it was not the practice of FSA photographers to record the names of their subjects, we have to piece together this particular family series by visual identification. We can deduce that these images are of the same family, because the young girl appears in figures one, two, and four, while the young boy appears in figures one and three. It would appear that the man in figure one is a single head of household because no adult female appears in any of the images. It also appears that Lee took the doorway shot first and then proceeded to the interior of the house. The captions for the four images read as follows:

Mexican father and children in doorway of their home made of scrap lumber

Figure 1: Mexican father and children in
doorway of their home made of scrap lumber.

Interior of Mexican home.  San Antonio, Texas.

Figure 2: Interior of Mexican home.
San Antonio, Texas.

Mexican boy sick in bed.  San Antonio, Texas.

Figure 3: Mexican boy sick in bed.
San Antonio, Texas.

Corner of bedroom. Mexican section, San Antonio, Texas.

Figure 4: Corner of bedroom. Mexican section, San Antonio, Texas.

These images offer evidence about how photographer Russell Lee managed to enter Mexican households and gain access to such a private space as the family bedroom. We know from interviews with Lee that he did not speak Spanish, yet he was able to gain the cooperation of his Mexican subjects to record intimate details of their lives. Figure 1 is a key image in this regard because it has the father standing in the doorway of his home in a pose that suggests both parental authority and an ability to provide for his offspring. He is dressed in a clean white shirt and his daughter in a dress with a bow in her hair. This attire is similar to what a family might have worn in a visit to a photographer’s studio to have their portrait recorded. In effect, Lee gained the cooperation of his subjects by allowing them to present themselves to the camera. Little did they know that Lee would undercut the father’s authority by writing a brief caption that called attention to the makeshift construction of the house.

Lee’s strategy apparently worked, for the remainder of the series is shot indoors. What did Lee seek in these interior shots? Figure 2 provides several clues. He has posed the young girl at the entrance to the kitchen, and he shows her drinking out of a metal cup. We are to presume that she has dipped water from the bucket that sits in front of her on top of the stove. From examining other photographs that Lee took in San Antonio, we can surmise that he was calling attention to the lack of proper sanitary facilities in Mexican households and to the dangers of drawing from contaminated water supplies. In the foreground of the image, his focus falls on the kitchen’s dirt floor. In the captions for other photographs he labels such floors as health hazards. As if to drive home his point, he takes a picture of a young boy lying in bed [Figure 3], and the caption claims that he is sick. Yet a close examination of this image shows that the youngster was well enough to pose in the doorway in the first image in the series. The final photograph in the series is by far the most intriguing. The young girl stands on a bed and points to objects assembled in the corner of the room. The caption is silent on the meaning of these objects, but from other Lee photographs of similar assemblages we learn that this is a home altar, and that most Mexican households have such sacred spaces. From the date of these photographs (March 1939) we learn that Lee visited the majority of Mexican households during Lent. Lee’s subjects may have given him access to interiors because they wanted him to record their religious displays and to see the extra decorations they applied for the observance of the Easter season.

While Lee duly recorded these altars, he rarely made mention of them in his captions except to say that many of them were “quite primitive.” He employed that term much the same as Arthur Rothstein did in captioning his photographs of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Scholars have amply documented the importance of Mexican home altars, which were constructed by female heads of households who also passed the tradition down to their daughters. Presumably, the young girl in the series is learning the craft from her mother. Yet why would Lee exclude the mother from the series? Perhaps she was absent, although the daughter’s dress and the bow in her hair suggest that the mother might have outfitted her daughter for the photographs. Lee appears to have been duplicating the strategy he employed in creating Christmas Dinner in Iowa. Here is a family torn apart by poverty. Yet in his Iowa photographs, Lee was creating images designed to elicit sympathy for hard-working white sharecroppers who needed temporary federal assistance to weather hard times. Lee’s photographs and their captions suggest that he had no such agenda in mind in his visit to Texas. Quite the contrary, his images and captions of Mexican households called attention to dirt, disease, and disorder and suggested that the Mexicans were a primitive people unable to care for themselves. Ironically this factual finding was not a prelude to a call for help for Mexicans but a dramatic statement that if white Texans did not receive federal assistance that they would end up in a primitive condition akin to their Mexican neighbors.


Footer Go to MAKING SENSE OF EVIDENCE Browse Page Go to MAKING SENSE OF DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY Home Page Try It Yourself! Annotated Bibliography Documentary Photography Online Model Interpretation How Was The Photograph Presented? What Can Companion Images Tell Us? How Was the Photograph Taken? How Was the Photograph Taken? Why and for Whom Was the Photograph Taken? Who Took the Photograph? Modern Documentary Photography Early Documentary Photography Introduction