National Archives News

Power & Light: Russell Lee’s Coal Survey Exhibit To Open at National Archives on Saturday, March 16

By Pete Lewis | National Archives News

WASHINGTON, March 14, 2024 – While Russell Lee may not be as well known as Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Walker Evans, or some others who documented the plight of Americans for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, the photographer produced an impressive body of work while working for the federal government during the 1930s and 1940s. On Saturday, March 16, the National Archives will open a new exhibit titled Power & Light: Russell Lee’s Coal Survey, which focuses on Lee’s powerful documentary photographs taken in various American coal communities.


In 1946, in order to end a 40-day strike, President Harry S. Truman ordered a government seizure of soft coal mines. Under the ensuing settlement reached with the United Mine Workers Union, the administration agreed to survey the health and safety of the miners’ working and living conditions. Under the leadership of the U.S. Navy Medical Corps, 90 mining communities in 22 states from Wyoming to West Virginia were surveyed. Lee was tasked with visually documenting the study.

Power & Light serves as an example of how records can impact the lives of Americans,” said Archivist of the United States Dr. Colleen Shogan. “These valuable photographs held by the National Archives helped change the narrative around the coal strikes at the time. Today, they provide us a glimpse into the rich history of coal communities across the country.”

Visitors to the exhibit will see more than 200 of Russell Lee’s photographs of coal miners and their families. The images, presented in the form of large-scale prints, projections, and digital interactives, are from a national housing, medical, and community facilities survey of bituminous coal mining communities.

This unprecedented survey and its powerful images were credited for the construction of 13 new modern hospitals in the southern Appalachians, the installation of wash houses, and overall improvements in mine safety and first aid.

“Russell Lee's photographs of coal miners are rich sources of historical information about the lives of a group of people who were not familiar to mainstream Americans. Although largely out of sight, their labor was of critical importance to the nation,” said Alice Kamps, the exhibit curator. “Many people had a negative view of the striking miners, in part because of the remoteness of their problems and in part because of propaganda that portrayed them as greedy and un-American. The photographs depict the reality of their plight. Today, the photographs give us a window into a way of life that has largely disappeared and remind us of the humanity of a group of people who have sometimes been reduced to stereotypes.”

The full series of photographs, which includes more than 4,000 images, 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 miners' families and communities.

“The exhibit enables us to bear witness to the hardships many coal miners endured and the strength, determination, and resilience they showed in the face of those difficulties,” Kamps added. “It's important to recognize that the people in these degraded and tragic circumstances we see in some of the photos were employed and hardworking. Yet many could not feed, clothe, and care for their families even though they worked for an industry of critical national importance. They went on strike for valid reasons, and the photographs document the depth and seriousness of their concerns.”

The National Archives held a soft opening of the exhibit on March 11, which was attended by several surviving descendants of miners featured in Russell Lee’s photos. Henry Armour was one such subject, and his son Michael was in attendance.

“It’s a tremendous honor to be a part of this wonderful exhibit. These were all my brothers and sisters. We all knew each other, loved each other. We were a very close family,” Michael said. “Unfortunately, they have all passed away. I’m grateful to the National Archives for this wonderful exhibit.”

Power & Light: Russell Lee’s Coal Survey will have free admission, and reservations are not required. The exhibition gallery, located at 701 Constitution Avenue, NW in Washington, DC, is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Last admission is 30 minutes prior to closing.

View photos by Russell Lee in the National Archives Catalog online.

Visit the National Archives website to learn more.

Power & Light: Russell Lee’s Coal Survey is made possible in part by the National Archives Foundation through the generous support of The Mars Family & Mars, Incorporated and Anonymous.