Research Notes: Russell Lee

In researching East Texas history, one of my favorite and most valuable discoveries has been the work of photographer Russell Lee. He took iconic photos of Depression-era Lufkin, along with meaningful captures of elsewhere in the East Texas region and across Texas. I have used one of his photos, Railroad Gang in my artwork, and have more stacked up to use in the future. Many of his works are in the public domain, which is a gift for artists, writers and other creators who are inspired by it.

More information on the life and work of Russell Lee can be found in The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos, the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas – Austin, and the Library of Congress. Some of my favorite Russell Lee Texas photos are below. They were found in the Library of Congress, and are in the Public Domain.

After Dinner Coffee, Lufkin.

Blacksmith Heating Iron in Forge, Southern Paper Mill construction shed, Lufkin, Texas.

East Texas farm owner rolling up old barbed wire near Harleton, Texas.
Bank corner on main street. San Augustine, Texas

County superintendent of schools and her assistant. San Augustine, Texas

Lufkin Railroad

“Rail Town, Paper Town.” Acrylic Monoprint by Stephanie Khattak.
Based on “Railroad Gang,” a 1939 photograph by Russell Lee.

With pine trees come timber, with timber come sawmills. From sawmills come pulpwood and from pulpwood, paper is made, along with plywood, lumber, and other “forest products”. In the case of my part of East Texas, towns are made, too. Businesses, goods, and services that comprise an economy and an identity.

The Deep East Texas timber/sawmill/pulpwood boom started before this image, but nonetheless it captures important ripples of the timber wave. According to the Library of Congress, where I found the source photo, these men were building a railroad to service the Southland Paper Mill, where many years later, my father would work as did his father, his brother-in-law and many if not most other fathers, grandfathers and uncles I knew. The mill changed ownership many times since its construction and finally closed for good in 2007 as Abitibi Bowater. My father and most workers had been laid off a few years before. My father went on to have a happy “semi-retirement” and follow his dream of being a professional singer, achieving some notoriety and many dedicated social media fans. Many others were not so fortunate.

But at the time of this image until roughly the late-90s, timber was a stabilizing and driving force in the community that it had ultimately changed forever. This piece captures a time of hard work and hope for the future.

As I am more of an artist and less of an academic historian, please explore these links for citations and further reading:

Image Source: Lee, R., photographer. (1939) Railroad gang, Southern Paper Mill construction crew, Lufkin, Texas. United States Lufkin. Texas Lufkin, 1939. Apr. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Jonathan Gerland, “A Brief History of Temple Land Ownership and Management in East Texas, 1893-2007,” The Pine Bough (December 2007) via The History Center, Diboll, Texas.

Bob Bowman, “The History of Lufkin,” via City of Lufkin.

Bob Bowman, “The Pioneer Paper Machine,” via All Things Historical, Texas Escapes.

The source photo for this piece was taken by Russell Lee, a contemporary of Dorothea Lange, hired for the federally sponsored Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographic documentation project of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. In 1973 this body of work was described as “the greatest documentary collection which has ever been assembled.” I’m so grateful to have Lee’s iconic images available to build on and inspire me today.