Power and Light

Opens March 16, 2024

An exhibition of photographs by renowned documentary photographer Russell Lee telling the story of workers who helped build a nation. Russell Lee’s coal survey photographs honor a group of Americans, more diverse than we realized, who were mostly hidden from view.

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.


About the Exhibit

The Power & Light exhibition features more than 200 of Russell Leeʼs photographs of coal miners and their families in their homes, mines, and communities. Visitors will experience large-scale prints, projections, and digital interactives. Although Leeʼs earlier images of Depression-era Americans are well-known, his 1946 coal survey images have enjoyed little public exposure. The full series, which includes over 2,000 of Lee’s photographs, 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 minersʼ 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.


About Russell Lee

Russell Werner Lee (1903-1986) was born in Ottawa, Illinois. Originally trained as an engineer, he was methodical in his work, but he 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 photographerʼs respect for his subjects. Despite their plight, it is their strength, dignity, and humanity that strikes the viewer.

Although the coal survey photos represent some of Leeʼs 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. He aimed to inspire social change, believing visual evidence of struggle and hardship could inspire reforms.



Power & Light
Honorary Committee

Organizations
American Coal Council
America’s Power, Michelle Bloodworth President & CEO
Appalachian Regional Commission
National Association of Naval Photography
National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Jim Matheson, CEO
Professional Photographers of America
United Mine Workers of America

Individuals
Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel
Lucian Perkins, Pulitzer Prize-winning Photographer & Filmmaker 
Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Award-Winning Documentary Filmmaker
Nicholas Lemann, author, journalist, and academic 
Mary Jane Appel, Russell Lee biographer and photographic historian
Siobhan Bohnacker, former Photo Editor of The New Yorker and photographic scholar

Elected Officials
Governor Andy Beshear (D-KY)
Governor Spencer Cox (R-UT)
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM)
Governor Wes Moore (D-MD)
Governor JB Pritzker (D-IL)
Governor Glenn Youngkin (R-VA)

U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA)
U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV)
U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL)
U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA)
U.S. Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-NM)
U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD)
U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI)
U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA)
U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV)

U.S. Representative Susie Lee (D-NV)
U.S. Representative Andy Barr (R-KY)
U.S. Representative Harriet Hageman (R-WY)
U.S. Representative Erin Houchin (R-IN)
U.S. Representative Brett Guthrie (R-KY)
U.S. Representative Greg Landsman (D-OH)
U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX)
U.S. Representative Carol Miller (R-WV)
U.S. Representative Alex Mooney (R-WV)
U.S. Representative C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD)
U.S. Representative Susan Wild (D-PA)


Russell Lee Photographs

“Ella Jane Fain (right) daughter of Harry Fain, miner, and her cousin have a coke in soda fountain prior to movie showing. Inland Steel Company, Wheelwright #1 & 2 Mines. Wheelwright, Floyd County, Kentucky.” (Original Caption)

Children of miners playing in abandoned shack. Gilliam Coal and Coke Company, Gilliam Mine, Gilliam, McDowell County, West Virginia.” (Original Caption)

“Harry Fain, second from right, seated in shuttle car on mantrip before going underground. Inland Steel Company, Wheelwright #1 & 2 Mines. Wheelwright, Floyd County, Kentucky.” (Original Caption)

“Miner’s baby is admired by womenfolk of the community. Koppers Coal Division, Kopperston Mine, Kopperston, Wyoming County, West Virginia.” (Original Caption)

“Double row houses; garbage and trash are disposed of in this meager stream of water; there is a well and pump at each end of the row of houses. Panther Red Ash Coal Corporation, Douglas Mine, Panther, McDowell County, West Virginia.” (Original Caption)

 

“Welch is the shopping and entertainment center for the nearby mining camps. Welch, McDowell County, West Virginia.” (Original Caption)