Lee photos capture Color of Pie Town

Sep 26, 2013

Thirty-seven of Russell Lee’s iconic color photographs of Pie Town, N.M. will be on display for about a year in the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum’s North Hallway.

The “Color of Pie Town” exhibit opens on Oct. 4 and will continue through Oct. 19, 2014. The images in the show were reproduced at the museum on a large-format printer, several of them as large as 48 by 35 inches.

Lee captured life in this small Catron County town in 1940. At the time Lee was a 36-year-old photographer for the Historical Section of the U. S. Farm Security Administration (FSA. The previous year he photographed the towns of Questa and Costilla in northern New Mexico, and it was while returning to that area that Lee heard of Pie Town.

A traveler passing through the small community might not realize they are visiting a very historic place. Perched at about 7,800 feet just west of the Continental Divide in northeastern Catron County, Pie Town remains a fairly remote community – just as it was when Russell Lee first came to town.

Russell and his new bride Jean Lee visited Pie Town several times between the spring and fall of 1940. Lee photographed every facet of life in Pie Town, which reminded him of an old frontier town – a place where homesteaders still proved up their land, where many lived in rough log homes, where a daily stage kept contact with the outside world, and where a tight-knit community pulled together to socialize and survive.

Lee’s photographs were published in October 1941 in a U.S. Camera article entitled “Life on the American Frontier – 1941 Style”. They attracted a lot of attention, and helped establish Lee’s career as a documentary photographer. Neither Lee nor Pie Town would ever be the same.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was a successor to the Resettlement Administration (RA), formed in 1935 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” to pull the nation from the Great Depression. The head of the Historical Section of the FSA was Roy Stryker, who assembled a photographic team that became a “Who’s Who?” of American photojournalism – including Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Russell Lee. Their task was to publicize and gain support for FSA programs to fight rural poverty. But their iconic images have since come to symbolize the Depression era, and are what the FSA is mostly remembered for today.

Born in Ottawa, Illinois, and trained as a chemical engineer, Russell Werner Lee (1903-1986) was blessed with an artistic nature and an inquiring mind. Finding himself bored with chemical engineering, Lee tried his hand as a painter in 1929. He purchased a 35mm Contax camera in 1935 to assist his painting and drafting, but soon found himself totally immersed in photography.

The Pie Town photos helped establish Russell Lee’s reputation as a documentary photographer. The majority of his images were in black–and-white, but he also used some color Kodachrome slide film. Although Lee took over 600 images of Pie Town, only 72 were in color.

The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for senior citizens and $2 for children 5 to 17. For more information, all (575) 522-4100.

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For information contact Craig Massey at craig.massey@state.nm.us.