Russell Werner Lee (1903-1986) was born in Ottawa, Illinois and graduated from Lehigh University in 1925 with a degree in engineering.
In 1935 Lee began to experiment with a camera and to photograph miners and record conditions in Pennsylvania coalmines. His growing interest in social issues and his affinity for photography as a means of recording social conditions brought him in contact with other visual artists, among them Pare Lorentz and Ben Shahn, whose work he admired. He heard that Shahn was involved with the documentation program of the Historic Division of the Resettlement Administration, later renamed the Farm Security Administration, headed by Roy Stryker. As part of the team that also included Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein and Walker Evans, Lee's primary task was to document rural communities with the goal of making urban Americans aware of the plight of tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and migrant workers stricken by drought and the Great Depression. Stryker assigned Lee to cover the Midwest and the West Coast, where he typically stayed on the road much longer than expected. Lee made some of his better-known early photographs in rural Iowa in 1936. He traveled throughout Texas and New Mexico between 1939 and 1940. During the 1940's, Lee's distinctive work appeared in hundreds of newspapers and popular journals including Life, Look, Fortune, U.S. Camera, and Survey Graphic.
Shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, the Historical Division transferred to the jurisdiction of the Office of War Information. Lee left the FSA group and joined the Air Transport Command as a captain, assigned to take aerial surveillance photographs as well as documenting local conditions on the ground. When the war ended, Lee resigned his commission and in 1947 he moved to Austin, Texas. From 1965 to 1973 he taught photography at the University of Texas. Although Lee often traveled as a free-lance photographer on assignment for magazines, corporations, the federal government, and the University, Austin remained his home and Texas a major focus of his work until his death in 1986.