Arthur Rothstein (July 17, 1915–November 11, 1985), a Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer from 1935 to 1940, was born in New York City. Rothstein became interested in photography while in high school, and he pursued the medium as an undergraduate at Columbia University in New York City, where he was a student of Roy Stryker. In the summer of 1935 Stryker hired Rothstein to work in the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration (RA). Rothstein continued with the agency after it became the Farm Security Administration in 1937. He left in 1940 to take a position with Look. During World War II, Rothstein worked for the Office of War Information, the Signal Corps, and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. With the end of the war, he returned to Look, remaining with the magazine until it ceased publication in 1971. The next year he went to work for Parade, where he held a position until his death.
The first photographer hired at the RA and the youngest member of Stryker's staff, Rothstein's initial duties were to set up the agency's lab. Lacking professional photographic experience, he was soon inspired by images taken by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, and he quickly gained confidence and technical expertise. Rothstein was sent on his first field assignment in October 1935, when he photographed rural farmers in the Blue Ridge Mountain region of Virginia. His two most famous series were executed the following spring. While in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, in April 1936 he shotFleeing a Dust Storm, an emblematic Dust Bowl image of a farmer and his two sons scurrying for cover in a bleak landscape.
More controversial was the work he did in May in the Badlands of Pennington County, South Dakota, when he used a sun-bleached steer's skull he had found in the parched riverbed as a moveable prop in several pictures. His purpose had been to create an image that would graphically convey to viewers the severity of the drought conditions. But anti-New Deal critics thought that in altering the scene, he had compromised his vantage as an objective documentary photographer in order to distort actual conditions for the political ends of the Washington politicians who employed him. Those opposed to Roosevelt's programs made charges of photographic fakery that generated a firestorm of criticism for the agency and administration.
In practice, many of the leading FSA photographers manipulated their scenes by posing their subjects, moving and removing objects, and using arti-ficial light sources, or in the case of Pare Lorentz's film, The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), even hiring actors. Lorentz, a skilled filmmaker and director, exerted a strong influence on Rothstein. As artists, both carefully thought out their work, and apparent spontaneity could be staged. Nevertheless, Rothstein regarded his images less as works of art than as instruments of social change.
Rothstein traveled widely for the FSA, passing through nearly every state and producing more than nine thousand images for the agency. These remain in the FSA/OWI collection of the Library of Congress. His career as a photojournalist spanned fifty years, and in addition to his studio work, he taught at the Columbia School of Journalism (1961–1971) and published a series of books on photojournalism and documentary photography.
Curtis, James. "Flight from Reality: Arthur Rothstein and the Dust Bowl." In Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth: FSA Photography Considered. 1989.
Curtis, James. "Race, Realism, and the Documentation of the Rural Home during America's Great Depression." In The American Home: Material Culture, Domestic Space, and Family Life, edited by Eleanor McD. Thompson. 1998.
Dixon, Penelope. "Arthur Rothstein." In Photographers of the Farm Security Administration: An Annotated Bibliography, 1930–1980. 1983.
Fleischhauer, Carl, and Beverly W. Brannan, eds. "Tenant Farmers" and "FSA Migratory Labor Camp." In Documenting America, 1935–1943. 1988.
"Interview: Arthur Rothstein Talks with Richard Doud." Archives of American Art Journal 17 (1977): 19–23.
Rothstein, Arthur. The Depression Years. 1978.