The New Deal Through the Lens of Arthur Rothstein

Self Portrait, Arthur Rothstein

Self Portrait, Arthur Rothstein
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

President Franklin Roosevelt had a remarkable ability to rally the nation using the mass-communication media of his time. He crafted intimate “Fireside Chats” to reach Americans in their homes by radio, but in this pre-television era FDR also needed compelling visual imagery to advance his New Deal agenda, promote national unity and counter the growing political extremism from both left and right.

Photography was central to the administration’s wide-ranging media strategies.

The most influential body of work was produced by a team of photographers in the Resettlement Administration (RA), an agency created by FDR in 1935 that later became the Farm Security Administration (FSA) within the Department of Agriculture.

Rehabilitation client repays loan. Smithfield, North Carolina, 1936

Rehabilitation client repays loan, Smithfield, North Carolina, 1936.
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

One of the largest and most visible of the New Deal’s initiatives, the FSA assisted struggling rural families and dislocated industrial workers throughout the country.

The President appointed Columbia University professor and key New Deal strategist, Rexford Tugwell, as director of the Resettlement Administration. Tugwell brought a colleague—agricultural economist Roy Stryker—to Washington to create the RA’s publicity arm, referred to as the

Historical Section. Stryker believed the best way to fulfill the Section’s mission was through photography, so he immediately hired his former student and recent Columbia graduate, Arthur Rothstein, as the agency’s photo lab director and first photographer.

"Eighty Acres." Wife and child of agricultural worker.

"Eighty Acres." Wife and child of agricultural worker.
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

Over the next eight years, Rothstein and a group of more than a dozen photographers working under Stryker gained renown as the FSA Photo Unit.

The primary mission of the Photo Unit was to document the hardships of those struggling through the Great Depression and how the FSA was working to address their problems. These iconic images portray Americans amidst drought, dust storms and failing crops; unemployment lines and communities abandoned by failing industries. But they also evince hope: farms stabilized by the agency’s loans, families resettled to greener pastures and farm hands who found respite in FSA migrant housing.

Children of sharecropper. North Carolina, 1935.

Children of sharecropper, North Carolina, 1935.
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

A secondary, but crucial role of the FSA’s photographers was to provide images in support of other New Deal programs. At times, Stryker’s photographers were loaned-out for assignments with other agencies, including the Interior Department and the US Public Health Service. These photographs often appeared in government reports and publications describing such New Deal initiatives as reducing child labor, improving international relations and boosting domestic tourism.

The Photo Unit produced more than 175,000 photographs during the 1930s and early 40s. Stryker provided the best of these images to newspapers, magazines and book publishers free of charge. This put a human face on the economic abstractions of the Great Depression and helped justify the need for the New Deal’s far-reaching initiatives.  The FSA Photo Unit later became part of the US Office of War Information (OWI), employed to promote national unity as America mobilized for war.

Explaining the Rural Electrification Administration to farm women at Central Iowa 4-H Club Fair. Marshalltown, Iowa, 1939.

Explaining the Rural Electrification Administration to farm women at Central Iowa 4-H Club Fair, Marshalltown, Iowa, 1939.
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

Arthur Rothstein and his contemporaries at the FSA contributed significantly to the nation’s collective memory of the New Deal-era. Rothstein served as a photographer for the US Army Signal Corps during WWll. In the decades after the war, he continued to influence the field of photojournalism as a teacher, writer and mentor to countless photographers. He helped shape the visual culture of post-war America as director of photography at LOOK and Parade, two of the most popular magazines at the time.

Ann Rothstein Segan, Ph.D and her husband, Brodie Hefner, manage the Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project. Together they develop publications, educational programs and exhibitions on the life and career of Ann’s father, documentary photographer Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985). Segan and Hefner are active members and contributors to the work of American Photography Archive Group, The Living New Deal and Archivists Round Table of New York.

Book Review: The Worst Hard Time, 312 pp

The Worst Hard TimeOn Black Sunday, April 14, 1935 a cloud two hundred miles wide carrying more than 300,000 tons of topsoil blackened the skies over the Great Plains. People lost their way as the wall of darkness rolled in; stores and schools were boarded up; cattle lay dead in the dust.

New York Times columnist, Pulitzer Prize winner Tim Egan earned the National Book Award for The Worst Hard Times. This must-read book is both a breathtaking historical narrative and a cautionary tale. Through painstaking research, including interviews with some of those who survived the Dust Bowl years, Egan paints a vivid portrait of America’s greatest environmental disaster.

Egan traces the roots of the Dust Bowl from wresting the High Plains from Native Americans to the “plow up” that tore the land apart. He brings to life those who wrestled the dry landscape—hard scrabble farmers, railroad barons, real estate speculators, and politicians. Most lost.

From 1930 to 1935 there were 750,000 bankruptcies or foreclosures on farms. Nearly a million people left the Great Plains—the largest displacement America had ever seen.

FDR clung to the belief that there was a way for man to fix what man had broken. Immediately upon taking office in 1933, he issued a call to arms to restore the land and keep farmers on it.

Dustbowl by Arthur Rothstein

Dustbowl by Arthur Rothstein
About to be engulfed in a gigantic dust cloud is a peaceful little ranch in Boise City, Oklahoma where the top soil is being dried and blown away. This photo was taken on April 15, 1935.
Photo Credit: Associated Press

Some of his first acts under the New Deal–subsidizing farmers, anchoring the land, planting millions of trees—were controversial even among members of his Brain Trust. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes questioned perpetuating farming on the parched prairies. In his view the land was spent. Meanwhile, Hugh Bennett, who fought for the creation of the Soil Conservation Service and became its first director, became a crusader when heartland politicians resisted federal involvement.

Egan recounts that Bennett was trying to win over skeptics in Congress when the sky over the Senate Office Building grew dark with dust. “This, gentleman, is what I’m talking about,” Bennett told them. “There goes Oklahoma.”

Egan’s epilogue will disabuse the notion that such massive environmental disasters are in the past. Bloated subsidies to corporate agriculture; ghost towns dotting the Plains; alarming rates of groundwater draw down; and persistent drought may be harbingers of Black Sundays ahead.

Susan Ives is editor of the Living New Deal Newsletter

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s

Originally published in 1979, Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl offers an account of the southern plains in the 1930s. Now considered a classic example of modern environmental history, this book offers a richly textured portrait of one of the worst environmental disasters in human history. Not just a tragic tale of antiquarian concern, the Dust Bowl, Worster maintains, offers a revealing chapter of our environmental history with ever-increasing relevance to mankind’s future. Arguing that the Dust Bowl contributed to the deepening of the Depression — rather than simply occurring simultaneously with the Great Crash in the east — this book added significantly to the historiography of the 1930s when first published and remains a valuable and fascinating read today.

The causes of the ecological catastrophe — while admittedly not wholly understood — are now largely clear. Wooster’s book reminds us that there was a time in which there was great uncertainty about both the causes of the great crisis and the proper steps of moving forward. Over-farming, prolonged drought, dramatic crashes in the price of wheat, and underdeveloped infrastructure created the dust bowl — but the story is about much more than those events. Wooster’s story includes details about the effects of the disaster on the society that inhabited the regions worst impacted on the society as well its its gradual but deepening impact on the east.

Couple the aforementioned problems with the lack of a social safety net, poor banking system, and the fact that the entire plains economy was flimsy — based on dangerously overextended investment in questionable lands for farming — and you have one of the worst disasters in human history. The Dust Bowl, Wooster contends, “was the inevitable outcome of a culture that deliberately, self-consciously, set itself that task of dominating and exploiting the land for all it was worth.” This book situates the New Deal as critical in helping the southern plains recover from one of the harshest disasters in modern history. Arguing that ranchers, farmers, and cattlemen failed to take the long view on the natural resources critical to survival, this book explains these actions as rational in light of the evolution of modern American commerce. Farmers, simply put, were encouraged to engage in practices that led to their own demise in the 1930s.

The Works Progress Administration, Soil Conservation Service, Civilian Conservation Corps, and National Resources Committee — all New Deal innovations — appear as critical to the efforts to recover the plains from the disaster. One basic function of these programs was to educate farmers about methods of irrigation and plowing, particularly in helping to stem the recurring dust storms. Although these programs helped mitigate some of the suffering, repair infrastructure, and planted thousands of trees, it was not until the demand in the international market caused by the Second World War and, more importantly, the return of the rains, the region began recovering. Many years since its original publication – in the wake of several recent, high profile disasters blamed in part on man-made climate change, this book seems more relevant than ever.

[Environmental historian Donald Worster is featured in the new Ken Burns PBS documentary series Dust Bowl.]

Reviewed by Samuel Redman

Dr. Sam Redman is an Academic Specialist at the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) at The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.