Rediscovering Arthur Rothstein’s “Photo Stories”

Families were displaced by the Dust Bowl

Forced to move by drought, North Dakota, 1936
Families were displaced by the Dust Bowl
Photo Credit: Photo by Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

My dad, Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985) was the first photographer hired by the Farm Security Administration, the New Deal agency that pioneered the use of photographs and “photo stories” to build public and political support for federal relief programs.

Starting in 1935, the Resettlement Administration, later renamed the Farm Security Administration– “FSA,” for short–compiled an unprecedented, nationwide photographic survey of life in Depression-wracked America.

During Dad’s nearly seven years working for the FSA he refined the art of visual storytelling, producing hundreds of in-depth photo essays documenting the need for government assistance and the successful New Deal relief programs created in response.

FSA photos put a human face on problems such as “drought” and “failing farms” targeted by New Deal programs.

Dust threatens to engulf a home. Liberal, Kansas, 1936
FSA photos put a human face on problems such as “drought” and “failing farms” targeted by New Deal programs.
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

Dad was fiercely patriotic. His parents, Jews displaced from Eastern Europe by pogroms, had found both refuge and opportunity in America. He was drawn to stories of migrants and the dispossessed that, through no fault of their own, needed government help. He brought a powerful sense of purpose to his New Deal assignments.

Dad’s boss at the FSA, Roy Stryker, shared Dad’s sense of purpose. Stryker believed that photography could serve as a tool to advance social justice. He thought that words with pictures provided irrefutable evidence of the need for federal assistance to struggling Americans. More than a dozen FSA photographers would eventually contribute images to Stryker’s extensive visual record of American life during the Depression and the early years of World War II. That collection, preserved at the Library of Congress, includes iconic images my Dad took as a young FSA photographer. His photographs of the devastation wrought by the drought and Dust Bowl remain the most famous of his career.

Photo by Arthur Rothstein for Look magazine

Eddie Mitchell, Birmingham, Alabama
Photo by Arthur Rothstein for Look magazine
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

The values my father inherited from his immigrant parents, reinforced by his New Deal tenure under Roy Stryker, can be seen in the work Dad created throughout his 50-year career as a photojournalist and documentary photographer.

After serving as a photographer in the US Army Signal Corps during WW II, and as chief photographer for a United Nations relief agency in China after the war, Dad spent 35 years as director of photography at the popular Look and Parade magazines. One of Dad’s first and most memorable stories for Look depicted the daily indignities of a young black man living in the segregated South.

Dad’s New Deal portfolio still stands out as surprisingly relevant. My father’s images from nearly 80 years past remind us that we still live among the dispossessed—those denied justice and made vulnerable by forces beyond their control—and that government has a responsibility to shield and support those who need a leg up.

 
Tenant farmer, Tennessee, 1937

Tenant farmer, Tennessee, 1937
The collapse of the rural economy displaced farmers from their land.
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

Book Review: New Deal Photography: USA 1935-1943, Farm Security Administration, 605pp

Taschen, an international publishing company begun in Cologne in 1980, has achieved international renown for its standout coffee table books. Taschen’s art books span from western masterpieces to pop culture, including illustrated monographs on artists, musicians, and writers, classical and contemporary.

Under its Bibliotheca Universalis imprint, Taschen recently reprised 100 of what it calls its “favorites” in a compact, 6 x 8 inch format. Thankfully, the series includes New Deal Photography, USA 1935-1943, a compendium of more than 400 photographs commissioned by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression.

In producing what it calls its “democratically priced” edition, Taschen has not sacrificed the legendary quality for which it is famous.

Author Peter Walther has curated an extensive catalogue of indelible images—a “best of” by the best-known photographers of the era. Many of them got their start with the FSA, one of many New Deal programs to put people to work. In the wake of the short-lived Resettlement Administration, the FSA’s mandate was to combat rural poverty. One powerful weapon was to document it. Roy Stryker, who headed the project, described as its purpose “to introduce America to Americans.”

Photographers like Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, and others fanned out across the country capturing images of the ruined landscape and those whose lives were upended by the nation’s environmental and economic collapse.

Over the course of eight years the FSA project resulted in the most comprehensive collection of social-documentary photographs of the 20th century.

Walther’s commentary, presented in English, French, and German, succinctly describes the historical context that fostered this uniquely American collection. The book includes rarely seen color photographs as well as many familiar black-and-white images of the displaced and desperate, such as Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” and Rothstein’s “Fleeing a Dust Storm.” Also included are brief bios and portraits of the photographers themselves whose iconic images have come to be recognized worldwide.

Key West Photo Exhibition opens July 17 to Honor Arthur Rothstein

Bait Seller, Key West, Florida, 1938

Bait Seller, Key West, Florida, 1938
One of the Rothstein photos in the Key West exhibition.
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein

Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985) created an indelible visual record of life in the United States and opened windows to the world for the American public during the golden era of news magazine photography. Rothstein shot some of the most significant photographs ever taken of small town America as a photographer for the federal Resettlement Administration, the New Deal agency later renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

The FSA was established to aid farmers struggling to survive the Great Depression. Rothstein went to work for the FSA in 1935 when he was 20 years old. In an era without television news, Roy Stryker, Rothstein’s boss at the FSA, thought that photographs—distributed widely in newspapers and magazines—would provide a window on the plight of displaced agricultural and industrial workers, thereby demonstrating the need for government assistance and documenting successful programs.

Cigar workers, Key, West, Floriday, 1938

Cigar workers, Key, West, Floriday, 1938
Stranded when the cigar factories moved north, workers turned to manufacturing in their homes.
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein

Stryker insisted that his photographers research each assignment. When Rothstein was assigned to photograph Key West, Florida in 1938, he would have arrived understanding the devastating loss of rail service after the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, the distressed state of local cigar and sponge industries, as well as the impending completion of the Overseas Highway, among nascent efforts by the federal government to promote the Keys as a tourist destination.

While Rothstein understood that the new highway would revitalize Key West, he wrote to Roy Stryker at the time of his visit, “I hope the resulting boom and development doesn’t spoil the picturesque beauty of the island nor make the natives lose their friendliness.”

On July 17, the Key West Art and Historical Society’s Custom House Museum  will celebrate the centenary of Arthur Rothstein’s birth with “Assignment 1938.” The exhibition exemplifies Rothstein’s ability to assemble a technically refined and representative picture story. The Key West assignment—like so many others throughout Rothstein’s long career—allows us to travel back with him to experience the light and shadow of a time now passed.