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

New Deal Utopias, by Jason Reblando

New Deal Utopias CoverOver three years Jason Reblando, a Chicago artist and photographer, trained his camera on three Greenbelt towns — Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin— constructed during the Depression to house poor Americans, many of them displaced from the Dust Bowl.

Rexford Tugwell, a Columbia economics professor tapped to head FDR’s Resettlement Administration (RA), modeled the Greenbelt program on the Garden City movement of early 20th Century England, integrating housing with nature. Tugwell’s dream was to create not only housing for those in need, but also a flourishing community. “My plans are fashioned and practical,” he said. “I shall roll up my sleeves—make America over!”

Jason Reblando, Photographer

Jason Reblando
Author and photographer Jason Reblando

The towns incorporated features designed to encourage neighborly interaction—shared courtyards and lawns, parks and playgrounds, intersecting pathways, public artworks, a swimming pool. Town residents managed schools, shops, and community buildings as cooperatives.

Not surprisingly, conservatives in Congress derided the Greenbelt experiment as both extravagant and “socialist,” and sought to end it.

To win support for the Greenbelt projects, Tugwell called on his former graduate student, Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the RA (soon to become the Farm Securities Administration). Stryker famously deployed FSA photographers to document the human desperation that the New Deal agencies were working to address. Photographs by the likes of Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Walker Evans captured some of the best-known images of the victims of the Great Depression. Lesser known were the RA’s photographs of the Greenbelt towns that conveyed an America on the road to recovery. Nonetheless, under pressure from Congress and wealthy farmers deprived of their tenant work force, the RA was discontinued in 1936.

Gazebo, Greendale, WI

Gazebo
Greendale, WI
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

Seventy-five years later, author and photographer Jason Reblando has re-captured the founding vision of the Greenbelt towns in his large-format book, New Deal Utopias. His color photographs of the tidy homes and well-tended grounds surrounded by farms and forests recall a kind of everyday orderliness—both ordinary and reassuring. Portraits of the towns’ 21st Century inhabitants depict a sense of small-town pride.

Despite what Reblando’s photos convey, not all is utopian in these New Deal “utopias.” Residents of Ohio’s Greenhills near Cincinnati have struggled for years to defend their historic district from redevelopment. They won National Historic Landmark status for their town, but that doesn’t ensure its preservation. In a recent letter to the citizens of Greenhills, the National Park Service acknowledged the town’s historic significance and the need to preserve it: “Bear in mind that the shared heritage and stewardship of the village should extend throughout the community, and decisions made today will impact current and future generations,” it cautioned.

Published under the fiscal sponsorship of the Living New Deal, New Deal Utopias serves as a reminder that this shared heritage comprises far more than buildings alone.

Pool, Greenbelt, MD

Pool
Greenbelt, MD
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

Lake, Greenhills, OH

Lake
Greenhills, OH
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

Daffodil House, Greendale, WI

Daffodil House
Greendale, WI
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando