American Coal - Russel Lee Portraits

American Coal - Russel Lee Portraits

  • By Mary Jane Appel and Douglas Brinkley
  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • This item is not eligible for discounts unless explicitly mentioned in promotional offers
  • This hardcover book is filled with more than 100 powerful images by noted photographer Russell Lee that document the working conditions and lives of coal mining communities in the postwar United States. Its publication coincides with the National Archives' exhibition Power & Light - Russel Lee's Coal Survey in Washington, D.C.

    In 1946 the Truman administration made a promise to striking coal miners: as part of a deal to resume work, the government would sponsor a nationwide survey of health and labor conditions in mining camps. One instrumental member of the survey team was photographer Russell Lee. Lee had made his name during the Depression, when, alongside Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, he used his camera to document agrarian life for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Now he trained his lens on miners and their families to show their difficult circumstances despite their essential contributions to the nation's first wave of postwar growth.

    American Coal draws from the thousands of photographs that Lee made for the survey—also on view in the US National Archives and Records Administration’s exhibition Power & Light—and includes his original, detailed captions as well as an essay by biographer Mary Jane Appel and historian Douglas Brinkley. They place his work in context and illuminate how Lee helped win improved conditions for his subjects through vivid images that captured an array of miners and their communities at work and at play, at church and in school, in moments of joy and struggle, ultimately revealing to their fellow Americans the humanity and resilience of these underrecognized workers.

  • The Power & Light exhibition features more than 200 of Russell Leeʼs photographs of coal miners and their families in their homes, mines, and communities. Visitors will experience large-scale prints, projections, and digital interactives. Although Leeʼs earlier images of Depression-era Americans are well-known, his 1946 coal survey images have enjoyed little public exposure. The full series, which includes over 2,000 of Lee’s photographs, can only be found in the holdings of the National Archives. These images document inhumane living and working conditions, but also depict the joy, strength, and resilience of the minersʼ families and communities

    Russell Werner Lee (1903-1986) was born in Ottawa, Illinois. Originally trained as an engineer, he was methodical in his work, but he approached his subjects with warmth and respect. The quiet Midwesterner put people at ease, enabling him to capture scenes of surprising intimacy. Many of his photographs reveal worlds through small details—keepsakes on the mantel, lined and calloused hands. What may be most distinctive about these images is their reflection of the photographerʼs respect for his subjects. Despite their plight, it is their strength, dignity, and humanity that strikes the viewer.

    Although the coal survey photos represent some of Leeʼs finest work, his best-known photographs are from an earlier project. Lee was one of several photographers hired by the federal government in the 1930s to document the toll of the Great Depression and drought on rural Americans. While he worked alongside famous colleagues including Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, Lee eschewed celebrity. He aimed to inspire social change, believing visual evidence of struggle and hardship could inspire reforms.