Arthur Rothstein

“Documentary photographers all have a common characteristic. They are curious, yet objective. They search with inquisitive zeal for the essence of nature and events. They examine and scrutinize in order to reveal the truth.” –Arthur Rothstein, Documentary Photography, 53

During his 50 year career as a photographer, Arthur Rothstein documented a great variety of subjects, including baseball games, war, struggling farmers, and U.S. Presidents. He was also a professor and published nine books on photography, including The Depression Years (1978) and America in Photographs (1985).

Rothstein and the Farm Security Administration

After his graduation from Columbia University, Rothstein’s former professor Roy Stryker, the head of the Photo Unit for the Resettlement Administration (which would later become the Farm Security Administration) made Rothstein the first staff photographer at the Resettlement Administration. Rothstein spent the next five years creating some of the most iconic images of rural and small-town America during the Great Depression (1935-1940).

Rothstein’s work for the FSA earned him $1,620 a year, with an allowance of 2 cents per mile and $5 a day for food and lodging (Rothstein 1986, 36). While on the job, Rothstein carried with him only what he needed.

“I had a sleeping bag in my car and an ax to chop down trees that got in my way. The back roads weren’t like those we have today. I had a shovel to dig myself out of snow or mud, a water bag, and a Coleman stove to cook things on. I was pretty self-sufficient.”
Arthur Rothstein, Documentary Photography, 37

During the five years that he spent working in this division for Stryker, Rothstein took around 80,000 images, many of them later becoming some of the most iconic images of the Great Depression. As he worked on producing these images over his five-year career at the FSA, Rothstein kept in mind that the documentary work that he was doing had “the power to move men’s minds,” (Rothstein 1986, 33). He used his documentary work as a way to teach others about life; how people live, work, and play, the social structures that people are a part of, and the environments in which they live in. As Rothstein said of documentary photography in his 1986 book entitled Documentary Photography,“The aim is to move people to action, to change or prevent a situation because it may be wrong or damaging, or to support or encourage one because it is beneficial,” (Rothstein 1986, 33).

It was with this aim in mind that Rothstein worked for the FSA. He wanted to inform people living in eastern United States of the dust storms and devastation that had hit the lives of farmers and others living in the Great Plains. He also used his work to help put soil conservation practices in place and to convince Washington to send government aide to the Great Plains.

The FSA photographs, being documentary in nature, also helped to promote photography as a respected form of art. Rothstein had an appreciation of the documentary image as “a vital, significant expression of photographic art,” (Rothstein 1986, 36). He aimed to spread this view to others through his work by being truthful, and also by evoking feeling in the viewer. During his time working for the FSA, Rothstein “learned to be an eyewitness to events and to report in a sensitive and intelligent way the relationships of people to their environments,” (Rothstein 1986, 36).

His first assignment working for the FSA was to document the people of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and their “relocation.” Rothstein grew up living in New York City and had not traveled much prior to this assignment. His lack of travel, he felt, allowed him to start his work at the FSA with new eyes, bringing a fresh outlook with him as well, which is why he believed that his early images were so successful.

As a way to avoid being obtrusive in the lives of his subjects, he tried to spend some time with them before starting an assignment, hoping that they would be comfortable around him when it came time for him to work. Rothstein spent a week with the people of the Blue Ridge Mountains, living as they did and getting to know them before he started shooting. When he finally did pick up his camera and start working, he chose to use a small, unobtrusive 35mm Leica camera with no tripod. Having a relationship with his subjects before shooting them and using camera equipment that helped prevent his subjects from feeling as if they were being watched helped Rothstein capture some of the most iconic images of the Great Depression that are still widely recognized to this day.

Fleeing a Dust Storm

One of these widely-recognized  photographs is Rothstein’s 1936 image entitled Fleeing a Dust Storm. Taken in April of 1936 to document the Dust Bowl, this image shows farmer Arthur Coble and his two sons in Cimerron County, Oklahoma during a dust storm. Rothstein took this photo to show people in the East what was happening to fellow Americans and their farms because those in the East “had no contact and no sense of identity with this poor farmer walking across the dusty soil on his farm in Oklahoma-it gave him a sense of identity” (Oral History Interview with Arthur Rothstein, 1964).

As it turns out though, Rothstein did have something to do with the creation of this picture, more than just being there to take it. In a 1942 interview, Rothstein described this photo as an example of “direction in a picture story,” (Curtis, 83). He thought of himself as a director, setting up in essence what was to be a recreation of a dust storm. Since photographing in the middle of a dust storm is not possible because of low visibility and it was dangerous, Rothstein had to direct his subjects in order to produce this image. He wanted to capture the impact that these storms had on the land and on the people, and was only truly able to do so at a time when there were low winds and high visibility. He asked the youngest boy pictured on the far right side of the photo to hang back and put his arms over his eyes. He asked the father and the older son to lean forward, as they would have normally done during a powerful dust storm. Rothstein was reenacting what he would have seen otherwise, if taking a photo during one of the powerful storms was possible. Despite the direction that Rothstein put into this particular image, it still stands as an informative picture representative of the time. People still look at it as being representative because he wasn’t making up a scence that never existed. He was, in this case, simply reenacting a real-life scene.

Bill Ganzel and Rephotography

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, photographer and author Bill Ganzel found some of the people who were first photographed by the FSA and used a technique similar to rephotography. This is a technique in which a photographer rephotographs the same scenes in order to show the changes that have taken place over time. Bill Ganzel did this with his book Dust Bowl Descent (1984), in which he retraced the routes of the FSA photographers and the approaches that they used in their documentation of the Great Depression. He then paired his images with the original ones taken by the FSA photographers and published then in his 1984 book Dust Bowl Descent. This took him ten years to complete and over 50,000 miles of travel. Ganzel says, “An effective documentary photograph exists within, and derives much of its meaning and power from, its context.”

 “Ah, it kind of scared me, best I can recall [laughs]. I thought maybe the world was coming to an end, I didn’t know [laughs]…”

-Darrel Coble, September 1977, speaking about the dust storms in an interview with Bill Ganzel, author of the book Dust Bowl Descent (1984)

Darrel Coble is the youngest boy pictured in Fleeing a Dust Storm, the boy who was directed by Rothstein to cover his eyes with his arm. Ganzel photographed Coble, in his home, still in Cimerron County, Oklahoma, in September 1977 when he was 44 years old. Hanging on the wall behind Coble is a reproduction of the image that Rothstein took when Coble was only three years old and living through the Great Depression. Coble never moved out of Cimerron County and lived there until he passed away in 1979, at age 46. “I don’t really know why I like living here,” Coble said to Ganzel in his 1977 interview. “It’s just home I guess.”

For more information on Dust Bowl Descent, visit Ganzel’s website:

Steer Skull, Badlands, South Dakota

Another image that is iconic of the Great Depression is Rothstein’s Steer Skull, Badlands, South Dakota, taken in May 1936. Rothstein was 22 when he took this image and he was working for the Resettlement Administration, documenting drought conditions in South Dakota. The truthfulness of this photograph is in question because it was found out that Rothstein moved the skull in order to get this image.

Photo courtesy of Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered by James Curtis, 1989

“I had not taken the picture in the first place as an example of New Deal propaganda; I had taken a picture of something that existed, and may even exist today.”

-Oral history interview with Arthur Rothstein, 1964 May 25, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

This photo was deemed a “gem among phony pictures,” with people saying that Rothstein fabricated the drought because, they claimed, a plain like the one pictured could be found anywhere throughout the country (Curtis, 75). As for the skull, they said that it was a “moveable prop” that came in handy for photographers who “want to touch up their photographs with a bit of grisly” and called the image New Deal propoganda (Curtis, 75).

As it turns out, however, This image was part of a larger series of images. First shot in the series, shown below on the left,  is a long shot which Rothstein used to establish scale and show the plain in its entirety. This shot also adhered to the Resettlement Administration’s instructions that “whenever possible, photographs should include evidence of land misuse and mismanagement” (Curtis, 71).

Photo courtesy of "Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered" by James Curtis

The image shown below, to the left,  was taken following this first long-shot. After showing a broad view of the plains, Rothstein decided to work with the skull itself.

Photo courtesy of "Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered" by James Curtis

The third shot in the series, pictured below to the right, shows further work that Rothstein did with the skull. He liked the previous close-up shot and so decided to move the skull to capture more dramatic contrast and deeper shadows.

Photo courtesy of "Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered" by James Curtis

This become Rothstein’s most famous image in this series, and the one that sparked this initial controversy, but it was not the last image in his skull series. To capture the shots that would end this famous series, Rothstein again moved the skull, this time next to a cactus plant for another look at the idea of overgrazing as being the cause for situations the severe drought that was happening in the Great Plains.

Rothstein moved the skull for esthetic reasons; to elongate the shadow for a more artful approach to the image. This was the same kind of movement that his colleagues would used to arrange their human subjects in images. Dorothea Lange, for example, posed her subjects and used studio techniques in her field work to incorporate some of these artful techniques into her work (Curtis, pg. 76).

Photo courtesy of "Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered" by James Curtis

Photo courtesy of "Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered" by James Curtis

The Photo Unit admitted that the skull had been moved, but said that Rothstein had not been attempting to deceive the public. In an attempt to deflect the criticism that was coming his way, Stryker used humor to shield his photo division. He made a paper-mache skull to be used as a paper weight and his staff even made a print of the skull picture to be used on a Christmas card.

After this steer skull incident, Rothstein was judged as a second-rate artist, even though many believed that he had not faked this image. The controversy stuck with him throughout the rest of his career, despite his claim that he used the skull and the earth to make “a lot of photographic exercises” using “photographic artistry” (Curtis, 76). The Associated Press used this image several months after Rothstein produced it, and according to him, used it out of context. They used it to represent the drought, when that was not what Rothstein intended it to be used for. While the image does show the presence of drought, he was claimed that he was simply taking pictures of things as they existed, not with any intention of how those images would then be used. He said that the AP “ took a picture out of a collection of pictures and gave it an entirely different meaning,” (Curtis, 76).

“Gees Bend,” Alabama

Arthur Rothstein also became famous for the collection of work that he created in “Gees Bend,” Alabama, a tenant farmer’s community. He did a series there in 1937 in which he portrayed his subjects not as victims, as was the case in many Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration photos, but instead as hard workers enduring life.

American Memory, FSA Collection. Digital Identifier: fsac 1a34260

Through his use of balanced compositions, Rothstein was also able to portray life at Gee’s Bend in a positive light, showing the picturesque qualities of the log cabins.


Rothstein’s favorite image, however, is one that he called Artelia Bendolph, Gees Bend, Alabama, 1937. Rothstein often has referred to the young girl in this image, Artelia, as a “Queen on the Nile,” (Rothstein 1986, 39). For Rothstein, this image does so much, with three different effects all working together to great this one image. As he said in his 1986 book Documentary Photography, “You see the girl- that’s effect one. You see the ad- that’s effect number two. But the third effect is when you see both images together and recognize the irony,” (39).

Attempts to Revive the FSA Projects

Rothstein saw the FSA project a project so great and worthwhile that, in his mind, there was no question as to developing other projects like it.

“The FSA compiled a priceless record of life in the United States and it is considered a valuable national resource. I feel that should be done on a continuing basis by the government so that the people of future generations can see what life was like.”
-Arthur Rothstein, Documentary Photography, 39

There have been attempts at reviving the FSA project, but none have been particularly successful as Rothstein had hoped. Photographer Ken Heyman was asked to direct a photo project similar to the FSA project, called Photo 200, but the National Endowment for the Arts did not support it and this project was not taken farther. Dorothea Lange also attempted something similar to what the FSA did, which was titled “Project I.” She hoped to have Ken Heyman document America through pictures, but this attempt was not successful either.

Despite the failed attempts to do a documentary photography story on the nation as a whole, some individual states have developed documentary surveys of their own. Three photographers for the National Endowment for the Arts captured different aspects of Kansas with their project, “Aesthetic Survey of Kansas.” One photographer concentrated on the people of Kansas, one on the architecture, and the third on the signs and symbols in the state. In 1975, a book was published with the results of this project, entitled No Mountains in the Way.

Where are Rothstein’s images now?

The work that Rothstein did during the Great Depression is part of the Farm Security Administration collection and can be found, free of charge, on the Library of Congress website: 

Rothstein’s papers, dated from 1936 to 1984, are housed at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. For more information about this collection, visit the link below:


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