An elementary school in Central Austin was recently renamed Russell Lee Elementary School to honor the famed photographer and founding professor of the photography program in what was then the Art Department in 1965.
Lee (1903–1986) was a social documentarian and artist best known for his documentary photography for the U.S. Farm Security Administration between 1936 and 1942. He worked for the U.S. Army’s Air Transport Command during World War II and later with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Survey of Health and Mine Safety in the mid-1940s.
Lee moved to Austin in 1947 and continued to work for such clients as Standard Oil of New Jersey and the Texas Observer. He captured photos of many Texas luminaries, including John Henry Faulk, Ralph Yarborough, Creekmore Fath, Maury Maverick Jr., and Hart Stilwell.
William Arrowsmith, then the chair of UT’s Classics Department, reached out to Lee in 1961 to commission him to photograph everyday life in Italy. The photographs were published in Texas Quarterly, and a major retrospective of the work from that portfolio was organized at UT in 1965 before the exhibition traveled to the Smithsonian. That same year, Lee was offered an appointment to the faculty of the Art Department, and over the next eight years, he developed the first photography program and taught hundreds of students. Lee’s archive resides at UT’s Briscoe Center for American History.
In 2011, a group of Lee’s students and friends started a scholarship fund named in honor of Russell Lee. The Creekmore and Adele Fath Foundation has contributed $500,000 toward the Russell Lee Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Photography in honor of their long-standing friendship with Lee. Since its inception, the scholarship fund has supported more than 15 undergraduate and graduate students.
Learn more and view some of Lee’s iconic images in this KUT story.