Russell Werner Lee, photographer, son of Burton and Adeline (Werner) Lee, was born in Ottawa, Illinois, on July 21, 1903. His parents were divorced when he was five, and his mother was killed in an accident when he was ten. He attended Culver Military Academy, Culver, Indiana, and graduated from Lehigh University with a degree in chemical engineering. Marriage in 1927 to Doris Emrick, a talented painter who later achieved considerable success under her married name, Doris Lee, brought him in contact with the world of serious art, in which he began photography. The Great Depression provided him the opportunity to develop his unique documentary style. From 1931 to 1936 Lee spent summers in the Woodstock Art Colony. He studied painting at the Art Students League in New York before he bought his first camera in 1935 for use as a drawing aid.
Lee was best known for his photographs taken for the United States Farm Security Administration between 1936 and 1942. Probably that agency's most prolific photographer, he was described by Roy Stryker, director of the photographic project, as a "taxonomist with a camera" because he dissected the visual aspects of any social situation in which he found himself. His use of direct flash allowed him to take relatively candid and very detailed interior shots. This became his trademark during his years with the FSA. Lee's social-documentary photographs were used by the agency to explain its work to the general public and to record the environment in which it worked.
His first marriage ended in divorce in 1938. In 1939 he married Jean Smith, a journalist from Dallas, who often traveled with him and wrote captions for his photographs and short essays on social scenes that Lee captured. Neither of his marriages produced children. His years with the FSA were followed by war service in the Air Transport Command. During World War II he flew more than a million miles and photographed the approaches to every airfield used by the ATC in its worldwide effort to supply United States and Allied troops. The photographs were used in pilot briefings and were considered of utmost importance for inexperienced pilots approaching unfamiliar airfields on radio silence. For his distinguished service Lee received the Air Medal.
After the war the Lees moved to Austin, where Lee remained active as a photographer. He was a friend of such prominent Texans as J. Frank Dobie and Ralph Yarborough. In 1946 and 1947 he conducted an intensive photographic survey of coal-mining regions of the United States for the United States Department of the Interior. Under the direction of Rear Admiral Joel T. Boone, he made more than 4,000 photographs of living and working conditions among miners, many of which were published in A Medical Survey of the Bituminous Coal Industry in 1947 and helped to bring about changes in work rules and health requirements in the mining industry. In addition to his government work, Lee took assignments from the Standard Oil Company and Fortune during the late 1940s and early 1950s. He also spent considerable time photographing political and social situations in Texas; he made, for instance, a large series on Spanish-speaking people, a series on mental institutions, and many photographs of political events. He and Jean also taught short seminars in photojournalism at the University of Missouri during this time, thus helping to establish one of the most successful programs in photojournalism in the country.
In 1960 Lee visited Italy to photograph at the behest of University of Texas professor of classics William Arrowsmith. There he took about 4,000 photographs, a number of which were used in Arrowsmith's "The Image of Italy," published in the Texas Quarterly (September 1961). In 1965 the University of Texas asked Lee to give a one-man exhibition in the art department; subsequently, the university asked him to establish a photography program in the department. From 1965 to 1973 Lee taught photography at UT and influenced several hundred students.
His photographs were widely exhibited throughout his career. Solo exhibitions of his work were organized by the Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery at the University of Texas in Austin (1965, 1987); the Tolson Institute, Lexington, Kentucky (1978); the International Museum of Photography, Rochester, New York (1979); and the Amarillo Art Center (1986). Collections of his work are housed in the Library of Congress and the National Archives in Washington, the University of Louisville in Kentucky, and the Barker Texas History Center in Austin. Examples of his work are included in the collections of the Amarillo Art Center; the Amon Carter Museum of Art, Fort Worth; the Southwest Collection, Texas Tech University, Lubbock; Rice University Art Collection, Houston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the San Antonio Museum Association; the Museum of Modern Art, New York City; and the International Museum of Photography, Rochester, New York.
After his retirement in 1973, Lee and his wife lived quietly in Austin, working with students and scholars who were interested in photography. He died on August 28, 1986.