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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Journalism professors journey in the spirit of historical photographer

Date: 10/26/2010

After driving 4,500 miles, taking hundreds of pictures and writing thousands of words, two New Mexico State University professors can say they have retraced the footsteps of Depression-era photographer Russell Lee. The result: Documented material showcased in a website that provides insight about ways people in rural New Mexico are coping with the current economic crisis, and how it compares to those who lived in the same part of the state during the Great Depression.

This photograph, taken of an abandoned gas station in Elida, is just one of thousands taken by Bruce Berman on his journey through New Mexico this past summer. (Photo by Bruce Berman)

Thanks to a Rising Star grant awarded by the office of the vice president for research, assistant professor Bruce Berman and associate professor Mary Lamonica have created a website documentary called Russell Lee's Road.Lamonica worked on historical research and the majority of the writing while Berman captured the journey through his photographs.

"There aren't many grants that support photography," Lamonica said. "We were fortunate to receive one that could fund both the research and photography aspects of this project."

"I was aware of Russell Lee and his work," Berman said. "I never set out to do what Russell Lee did. However, my experiences and the environments I found myself in resonated with what he did in 1930s and early 1940s."

After receiving the grant, Lamonica began the project in the summer of 2009 traveling the western section of Highway 60 in New Mexico through Magdalena, Pie Town following much of the same route traveled by photographers hired by the Farm Security Administration in the late 1930s to document rural life in America. She then took a second trip to Austin and San Marcos, Texas, where she studied hundreds of Russell Lee's personal papers and documents.

In May 2010, Berman set out on New Mexico's Highway 60, not sure what he was looking for or what he might find. Once he had traveled to Magdalena and Pie Town, he understood how his photographs related to Lee's work and set out to show how the two eras related and the social significance of making the comparison.

"Lee was always looking for the positive," Berman said. "The FSA saw poverty but he took pictures of church dinners, people dancing, people living. He saw how the determination of the American people would prevail."

Lamonica and Berman did find that while people in these rural communities are experiencing economic stress, their reaction differs from those living in rural New Mexico 70 years ago.

"People today are experiencing more anxiety than pain," Berman said. "From 1929 to 1940 there was an average 25 percent unemployment rate compared to today's 9.6 percent, so people now are experiencing more worry about what could happen."

"One thing that didn't change was the optimism we found in people," Lamonica said. "There is still very much a sense of community in the areas we looked at."

Professor Berman, conceived, built and edits the website. When he or Professor Lamonica post entries to the site, he juxtaposes the two professors' text with Lee's photographs, making it easier for viewers to see the parallels between the two eras. Both professors are seeking additional funding to continue with this and similar projects. To follow their site, visit http://www.russell-lee-road.com.

Written by Donyelle Kesler.

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