Power & Light: Russell Lee's Coal Survey

Saturday, March 16, 2024 - Sunday, July 6, 2025
Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery
Miner family on their front porch.
"The Sergent family on their front porch. P V & K Coal Company, Clover Gap Mine, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky." 
View in National Archives Catalog

Power & Light: Russell Lee's Coal Survey is an exhibition of photographs of coal communities by American documentary photographer Russell Lee. These images tell the story of laborers who helped build the nation, of a moment when the government took stock of their health and safety, and of a photographer who recognized their humanity.

About the Exhibit

Power & Light is free and open to the public. The exhibition features more than 200 of Russell Lee’s photographs of coal miners and their families in the form of large-scale prints, projections, and digital interactives from a nationwide survey of housing and medical and community facilities of bituminous coal mining communities. The survey was conducted by Navy personnel in 1946 as part of a strike-ending agreement negotiated between the Department of the Interior and the United Mine Workers of America. The full series of photographs, which numbers in the thousands, 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.

Note: All photograph captions are original, as provided by the photographer. Unless otherwise noted, the images are in the holdings of the National Archives, Records of the Solid Fuels Administration for War.

I'm taking pictures of the history of today. —Russell Lee

Power & Light features Russell Lee’s 1946 coal survey photographs of miners in their homes, mines, and communities.

Lee's photographs of miners at home reflect his respect for their individuality and resourcefulness, his fascination with families, and his meticulous attention to the details of everyday life.

Russell Lee was attentive to miners’ issues, documenting deductions to their pay, lost work days, perilous conditions, and the union meetings where they fought for a better deal.

To fulfill the mandate of the survey, Lee photographed sanitary, medical, and recreational facilities and services. But he also captured moments of joy and connection that characterized the strong community bonds forged by the miners.

Man standing with camera.

Russell W. Lee (with camera in hand), ca 1942–45. 
Image courtesy of The Wittliff Collections / Texas State University

About Russell Lee:

Russell Werner Lee (1903–86) was born in Ottawa, Illinois. Originally trained as an engineer, he was methodical in his work, but approached his subjects with warmth and respect. The quiet Midwesterner put people at ease, enabling him to capture scenes of surprising intimacy. Many of his photographs reveal worlds through small details—keepsakes on the mantel, lined and calloused hands. What may be most distinctive about these images is their reflection of the photographer’s compassion for his subjects. Despite their plight, it is their strength, dignity, and humanity that strike the viewer.

If you recognize Lee’s photos—but not his name—you’re not alone.

Although the coal survey photos represent some of Lee’s finest work, his best-known photographs are from an earlier project. Lee was one of several photographers hired by the federal government in the 1930s to document the toll of the Great Depression and drought on rural Americans. While he worked alongside famous colleagues including Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, Lee eschewed celebrity. His aim was to inspire social change, believing visual evidence of struggle and hardship could generate support for reforms.


Russell Lee talks about the coal survey and how he responded when people asked him, "why do you want to take my picture?"

Clips from "Photographer Russell Lee," a documentary by Ann Mundy, courtesy of Ann Mundy

Related Resources:

Download a full PDF Guide to the Images in the Russell Lee exhibit

Exhibit Credits:

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.