“Very glad to get your report on the Steinbeck book,” wrote Roy Stryker, the head of the Farm Security Administration. “This thing is getting awfully popular, and I think it might be advisable for you to drop everything and follow the ideas you have for shooting the material right into Oklahoma.”
It was May 11, 1939 and Stryker was writing to photographer Russell Lee, who had just finished reading The Grapes of Wrath and deemed it “one of the best books I have read.” The John Steinbeck novel, which chronicled the grim journey of an Oklahoma farming family fleeing the Dust Bowl for California, had been published a month earlier and was already on its way to becoming a best-selling sensation acclaimed by many and reviled by others. (The board of supervisors in Kern County, California—the destination of Steinbeck’s migrants—banned and even burned the book, saying that it made a mockery of the county.) But Russell Lee and Roy Stryker were fans. “I am sending Russell post haste to Oklahoma,” Stryker wrote to another photographer. “My poor old head is bulging with ideas on how to exploit this thing.”
Photography was not an obvious career choice for Russell Lee. Born in Ottawa, Illinois in 1903, Lee was on a conventional path for a son from an affluent family: military academy for high school, a college degree in engineering, a job at a roofing manufacturer. Then he met the painter Doris Emrick. The couple married in 1927 and Emrick encouraged Lee, who was growing restless in his career, to pick up a paintbrush. He did, and in 1929 he quit his job as a roofer and moved briefly with Emrick to the bohemian hotbed of San Francisco before relocating to an artists’ colony in Woodstock, New York. There, Lee acquired a camera, hoping it would bolster his painting skills.
Photography, however, was what would come to define his life. Intrigued by the technical demands of the medium, Lee began photographing people and places affected by the Great Depression: auctions in upstate New York where newly destitute families sold off their possessions, bootleg coal mines in Pennsylvania where workers toiled under hazardous conditions. Though he had only been photographing for about a year and a half, in 1936, Lee landed a job with the recently-formed Resettlement Administration, soon to be renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which aimed to improve the lives of hard-hit agricultural workers. Lee hit the road, driving long distances for months at a time, documenting rural poverty, following long lists drawn up by Striker of people, places, and things to shoot to create politically driven images that the FSA could use for lobbying in Washington.
Stryker and Lee decided they would use The Grapes of Wrath as a kind of shooting script for his trip to Oklahoma: using the characters and locations in the novel as inspirations for his images. Lee photographed the dilapidated living quarters and meager possessions of farmers; he captured them as they watched their parched crops dry up in the field.
Lee also documented happier moments, including a series of color photographs taken over the course of a single night depicting an ebullient square dance inside a sharecropper’s home in McAlester, Oklahoma. As children slumbered together in a sparse room, their parents partied on the other side of the wall. Lee captured images of couples pressed together on the dance floor, a two-person string band, and a host so soaked in sweat he looked like he was doused with a bucket of water. Lee purposefully sought out such social gatherings. “Saturday afternoon was the real time for people to go into town, Sunday for church, and the families being home together,” he explained. “So we did a lot of photography on weekends, on Saturdays and Sundays, a great deal. In any community in those days, if you happened to be there on Saturday or Sunday, there was going to be something to photograph.”
Like his FSA colleagues Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, Lee was hailed for the honesty of his documentary photography. He and Lange were especially celebrated for their ability to gain the trust of the communities they photographed. “Mr. Lee has removed all barriers,” David L. Shirey wrote in the photographer’s 1979 The New York Times obituary. “There seem to be no cameras between us and the people he photographs. The situation is neither contrived nor artificial. His subjects are at ease and we are at ease with them.”
I first saw the picture when I was in my twenties, when I was working as an editor at the National Post in Canada, and the idea of having a kid was a fuzzy abstraction, based on whomever I was dating. I was really interested in early color photography, searching out images from the early 1940s. Seeing something in color from that period feels shocking, like time travel.
In Russell Lee’s photograph there are four kids, plopped on a sagging bed, tanned limbs sticking out of shorts and pinafores, two in white shoes, two barefoot, sweaty and innocent. Three of them appear to be asleep, but one of them is awake.
This is how it was for us, when my parents went to a party. We were expected to lay down and go to sleep. My mother is an immigrant from the Philippines, and we didn’t have a lot of money growing up, not enough for babysitters. I remember my cousins and I, plopped on a made-up bed in my aunt’s house while a party went on down the hall. I remember sleeping on top of the covers in my dresses and socks.
The photograph stuck with me over the years, as my ambivalence about having children became less abstract.
The image made me think maybe I could do it—maybe I could take my child everywhere like my parents did. Maybe I could go to a party in New York, and set her down on a bed if she gets sleepy, and later, pick her up and carry her home. Lee’s photograph was more hopeful to me than any image in a nursery furniture catalog, any idea that had been sold to me about what parenting should look like.
Right now, I live with my five-year-old daughter in a one-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village. We each have our own twin bed. I love to be awake while my daughter is sleeping. These quick sketches of her were done from photos taken of her while she sleeps.
Leanne Shapton is an illustrator and author based in New York City. Her book Swimming Studies won the 2012 National Book Critic's Circle Award for autobiography. She is the co-founder, with photographer Jason Fulford, of J&L Books, an imprint specializing in art and photography books. Shapton grew up in Ontario, Canada.
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