One of America’s Premier Photojournalists of the 20th Century
Arthur Rothstein, born in 1915 in New York City, is recognized as one of America’s premier photojournalists of the 20th century. Throughout a career that spanned five decades, he produced notable photographs focusing on the farming communities in the Midwestern Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. His catalogue of photographs are considered to be some of the best known photographs of the Depression Era. Rothstein began his interest in photography during his school years at Columbia University, where he established the University Camera Club, and served as the yearbook photo editor. While studying at Columbia University, Rothstein met economics instructor Roy Stryker, who would later lead the photographic section of The Resettlement Administration (known as The Farm Security Administration). With an appreciation for Rothstein’s technical proficiency, Stryker hired him as the first staff photographer of the Farm Security Administration in 1935. It is during his years working for the FSA Photography Project that Rothstein created some of his most captivating pictures, which are today iconic and historic records of life in America in the early 20th century.
A Humanistic Approach
The Resettlement Administration was created to use the medium of photography to document and publicize the large-scale economic disturbances caused by the Great Depression, and the “widespread displacement and disruption of agricultural communities during the Dust Bowl of the 30s.” Arthur Rothstein, a crucial member of the FSA, adopted a humanistic approach to photographing the daily realities of the agrarian poor. Rothstein, a self-proclaimed ‘provincial New Yorker’ was very excited about the idea of traveling around the country and seeing what the rest of the US was like. His assignment to photograph the Dust Bowl birthed ‘a missionary sense of dedication to the project’ for Rothstein, where he wanted to use his art to make a pictorial record of the period in which he lived in.
“Passion for the Use and Perpetuation of Photojournalism and Documentary Photography toward the Betterment of Society.’
Photographers of the FSA Photographic Projects, which included the likes of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, embraced Stryker’s main philosophy of “passion for the use and perpetuation of photojournalism and documentary photography toward the betterment of society.” The collective ‘esprit de corps’ and the overall feeling of all member photographers being equally enthusiastic about the project contributed to the success of the operation. In a 1964 for the Smithsonian Institution with Richard Doud, Rothstein even emphasized the influence Ben Shahn and Walker Evans had in furthering his art with an added sense of social responsibility. ‘Both of them’ said Rothstein, “contributed a great deal to my own development as a photographer because they had very definite approaches, and it was not just a question of making a picture, but making a picture that had meaning.” Rothstein’s documentary photographs soon took a life of their own, showing America as well as the rest of the world the harsh realities of the living conditions during such troubled times.
Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma
One of, if not the most iconic photographs during Arthur Rothstein’s time within the FSA was titled ‘Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma’ which was executed in 1936. The photograph shows a man and his two children struggling against the harsh winds and the dust storm. The Dust Bowl was a period in which prairies became victim to severe dust storms that greatly damaged the agriculture. These storms, largely due to drought and wind erosion caused farmers to live in extreme poverty for many years, and many abandoned their land altogether.
Life in the Midwest
From the subjects’ body languages to the minimal shelter, Rothstein’s photograph depicts a dramatic scene, presenting the viewer a harsh, graphic moment from the realities of life in the Midwest. The father and son are seen pitched forward to fight the winds whereas the younger child in the background covers his face from the severe dust and wind. The dust-filled, dark skies, combined with the young child’s defensive gesture adds onto the climactic aura of the overall picture.
‘It was a picture that had a very simple kind of composition’ says Rothstein, ‘but there was something about the swirling dust and the shed behind the farmer. What it did was the kind of thing Roy always talked about – it showed an individual in relation to his environment.’
Igniting a Feeling
Rothstein, with his honest approach to photography, wants the viewer to truly feel, with their whole bodies, what it would be like to live in such conditions, to walk against the dust storm, and try to live in a barren land. He wanted to convey a feeling within the spectator with his documentative aesthetic.
An Unobtrusive Camera
Arthur Rothstein likened his photojournalistic approach to an “unobtrusive camera,” a phrase he often used to describe the way he captured his images. An “unobtrusive camera”, according to Rothstein is the “idea of becoming a part of the environment that people are in to such an extent that they’re not even aware that pictures are being taken.” His “fly on the wall” style of working allowed the photographs to serve their documentative purposes, and become historical records. Such is the case for this particular photograph as well. Having been taken in 1936, ‘Dust Bowl’ not only gained value for shining light on a crucial moment in history, but also played a significant role in the medium of photography being recognized as an art form. When, at first, ‘Dust Bowl’ was taken as a documentative photograph, it gained a life of its own, transforming into an icon of the Depression era, which speaks to photography’s power and revolutionary process.
What Life is Like in the United States
In the same 1964 interview, Arthur Rothstein emphasizes the importance of continuing to record and archive life by the photographers of its day. According to Rothstein,
“perhaps every twenty-five years we should have a record of what the United States is like, what life is like in the United States. That a new generation has come along, and maybe we need a new generation of photographers going out and showing what it’s like today, in our world of missiles and space capsules and television and all of those things that exist today that we didn’t have thirty years ago.”
Today, the public archives of the FSA are maintained by the Library of Congress. Fleeing the Dust Bowl by Arthur Rothstein became one of the great images of the 1930s and the Great Depression, and was later shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.