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.
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.