Arthur Rothstein

JULY 7TH – AUGUST 29TH, 2020

From its inception, photography has been used as a medium to document our personal and collective histories.

Firstly, photographs served as archival records of specific moments in time. All photographs are taken “in the present,” but from the instant of the shutter’s snap, they belong to the past. Thus, photography, in its nature, became an “unimpeachable witness.”

From its inception, photography has been used as a medium to document our personal and collective histories.

Firstly, photographs served as archival records of specific moments in time. All photographs are taken “in the present,” but from the instant of the shutter’s snap, they belong to the past. Thus, photography, in its nature, became an “unimpeachable witness.”

“Photography came into the world like a sign from on high, instantly converting all who came in contact with it into true believers…The new medium was the ultimate eyewitness, unhampered by subjectivity, memory lapses, or flights of fancy. Its testimony could override almost any degree of disbelief. In matters of influence, Photography came endowed with multiple advantages, but chief among them was its skill at offering evidence and authentication.” – Vicki Goldberg, The Power of Photography

In the years from the late 1920s to the 1940s, the United States of America is at pains in dealing with the most devastating economic and social conditions of the 20th century.

The country was unraveling from the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties. The gilded age of opulence had turned into a warning tale of pursuing the American Dream at the cost of financial excess. The Great Depression of the 1930’s devastated America’s economy and caused widespread unemployment. The Dust Bowl, a period of severe dust storms that ravaged the agriculture of rural America’s heartland, added to that misery and poverty and forced farmers to abandon and try to sell their lands. Subsequently, the farmers migrated to the cities, only to find that urban centers were themselves stricken by economic depression.

Amid these challenges, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president. He proposed a series of programs, known as the New Deal, to provide relief from the Great Depression. Consequently, the New Deal legislation created the Farm Security Administration to combat rural poverty. To better demonstrate to the public the plight of America’s farmers, the FSA created the Historical section as a publicity arm of the program, documenting living conditions in rural America. As a result, city dwellers began to see the realities of dispossessed farmers. Accordingly, a succession of great photographers created a vast archive of pictures that documented the lives of rural Americans.

Photography was now an essential part of moving the country forward and became a social and political tool.

The medium served as a voice to sway public opinion in sympathy for the needs of rural Americans. The photos worked to help justify the redistributing of income and enlarge the government’s scope towards building a collective future. Photographers put a public face on the collective needs of struggling individuals in rural America.

“You’ll find no record of big people or big events. These are pictures that say “Depression,” but there are no pictures of sit-down strikes, no apple salesmen on street corners, not a single shot of Wall Street, and… no celebrities.” – Roy Striker on FSA

These influential pictures ranged from the economically unsustainable landscape to portraits of its unwitting victims.

The images in this exhibition show Dorothea Lange’s and Arthur Rothstein’s documentary photographs of Oklahoma. Margaret Bourke White’s and Walker Evans’s pictures that present Americans surrounded by dilapidated architectural facades and bare interiors. The buildings, as well as the landscape, reflecting the rough but sturdy and resilient spirit of the times.

Other photographs by W. Eugene Smith represent, not only the plight of farmers but also the inherent human histories these portraits carried. Smith’s created a photo-essay of the remarkable nurse-midwife Maude E. Callen, who worked in the South Carolina low country. These pictures helped circulate the narratives of Americans living in the rural parts of the country to the rest of the nation. Consequently, Smith’s photographic essay for Life magazine of the tireless and altruistic work of Callen, known as the “Angel in Twilight,” connected with readers. Readers in turn, would donate over $20,000 to her cause. As a result, Callen opened the Maude E. Callen Clinic in 1953.

In times of struggle and in moments of darkness, photographers were relied on to shed light and convey emotional concern and attachment to help those in need. Their work helped preserve stories of struggle and aim for a constructive path for change. The photographs they made, fostered a sense of community and obligation of collective care in the American public.

These pictures eventually became some of the first examples of images that encouraged positive social reforms for rural America.

“North America’s greatest environmental disaster and a deep economic depression together created the fertile grounds for one of the largest and most influential photography projects of all time.” – Tom Ang. Photography, The Definitive Visual History.