National Archives News

Authors Discuss Russell Lee’s American Coal Miner Photos

By Pete Lewis | National Archives News

WASHINGTON, March 22, 2024 – In 1946, as part of a deal with striking coal miners, the U.S. Government promised to sponsor a nationwide survey of health and labor conditions in mining camps. Russell Lee, who had made his name during the Great Depression documenting agrarian life for the Farm Security Administration, was an instrumental member of the survey team. His moving photographs are currently featured at the National Archives in Washington, DC, in the exhibit Power & Light: Russell Lee's Coal Survey.

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Authors Douglas Brinkley and Mary Jane Appel discuss their book, American Coal: Russell Lee Portraits, with exhibit curator Alice Kamps, at the National Archives in Washington, DC, on March 21, 2024. National Archives photo by Hilary Parkinson.

In celebration of Lee’s work and the new exhibit, on March 21, 2024, the National Archives hosted Mary Jane Appel and Douglas Brinkley, authors of American Coal: Russell Lee Portraits, for a discussion of his coal miner photos. Alice Kamps, the exhibit curator, served as moderator.

The 1946 medical survey of the bituminous coal industry collected more than 4,000 images. Lee’s photos documented the often inhumane living and working conditions miners suffered through but also managed to capture the resilience and strength of the families and communities.

“If you could build a photographer specifically for this assignment, you couldn’t have imagined Russell Lee. He was the perfect combination of skills and temperament. He was perfect in many ways,” Appel said. “He was trained as a chemical engineer in the early 1920s, and he had worked in industry, including in mining. And he took his methodical engineering approach with him when he became a photographer.”

Lee’s photographs helped to shine a light on communities that were largely unknown to or misunderstood by the majority of Americans. Having engaged in labor strikes during World War II, the image of coal mining workers and unions had suffered. The imagery from the 1946 survey helped to humanize and share the plight of coal miners in the public eye.

“In 1946, so many strikes are going on everywhere that you look, and it became somewhat of a national crisis,” Brinkley said. “In 1946, with the sensitivity of Russell Lee, he would go and show their lives. It’s not just showing somebody with black lung disease, but he was trying to document what life is like for people living in mining camps. Russell Lee played a key role in that strike and the settlement of it.”

“[Russell Lee] is a photographer that has been underrecognized and underappreciated, but it’s also a group of people that have been underrecognized and underappreciated,” Kamps added. “We wanted to do an exhibit based, not on your everyday politicians and power brokers, but one about everyday Americans and to celebrate their contribution to building the United States.”

The discussion was followed by a question-and-answer session.

View the discussion on the National Archives YouTube page.

Power & Light: Russell Lee’s Coal Survey is free, 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 for more Archives news.

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.