Russell Lee was born in Ottawa, Illinois, in 1903. In 1936 Lee was invited by Roy Stryker to join the the federally sponsored Farm Security Administration. This small group of photographers, including Esther Bubley, Marjory Collins, Mary Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Charlotte Brooks, John Vachon, Carl Mydans, Jack Delano, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn, were employed to publicize the conditions of the rural poor in America.
In 1939 Lee took the famous Migrant Child Returning Home from Fields, Prague, Oklahoma. The photograph illustrated the problems of child labour in rural America.
Lee became the first instructor of photography at the University of Texas in 1965.
Russell Lee died in Austin, Texas, in 1986.