Arthur Rothstein – one of America’s Greatest Photojournalists

Arthur Rothstein (July 17, 1915 – November 11, 1985) was an American photographer. Rothstein is recognized as one of America’s premier photojournalists. During a career that spanned five decades, he provoked, entertained and informed the American people. His photographs ranged from a hometown baseball game to the drama of war, from struggling rural farmers to US Presidents.

Rothstein was born in Manhattan, New York City, and he grew up in the Bronx. He was a graduate of Columbia University, where he was a founder of the University Camera Club and photography editor of the Columbian. Following his graduation from Columbia during the Great Depression, Rothstein was invited to Washington DC by one of his professors at Columbia, Roy Stryker. Rothstein had been Stryker’s student at Columbia University in the early 1930s.

In 1935, as a college senior, Rothstein prepared a set of copy photographs for a picture source book on American agriculture that Stryker and another professor, Rexford Tugwell were assembling. The book was never published, but before the year was out, Tugwell, who had left Columbia to be part of FDR’s New Deal brain trust, hired Stryker. Stryker hired Rothstein to set up the darkroom for Stryker’s Photo Unit of the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration (RA).

Arthur Rothstein became the first photographer sent out by Roy Stryker, the head of the Photo Unit. During the next five years he shot some of the most significant photographs ever taken of rural and small-town America. He and other FSA photographers, including Esther Bubley, Marjory Collins, Marion Post Wolcott, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, Jack Delano, Charlotte Brooks, John Vachon, Carl Mydans, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn, were employed to publicize the living conditions of the rural poor in the United States. The Resettlement Administration became the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1937. Later, when the country geared up for World War II, the FSA became part of the Office of War Information (OWI).

Arthur Rothstein

The photographs made during Rothstein’s five-year stint with the Photo Unit form a catalog of the agency’s initiatives. One of his first assignments was to document the lives of some Virginia farmers who were being evicted to make way for the Shenandoah National Park and about to be relocated by the Resettlement Administration, and subsequent trips took him to the Dust Bowl and to cattle ranches in Montana.

The immediate incentive for his February 1937 assignment came from the interest generated by congressional consideration of farm tenant legislation sponsored in the Senate by John H. Bankhead, a moderate Democrat from Alabama with a strong interest in agriculture. Enacted in July, the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act gave the agency its new lease on life as the Farm Security Administration.

On February 18, 1937, Stryker wrote Rothstein that the journalist Beverly Smith had told him about a tenant community at Gee’s Bend, Alabama, “the mostwas preparing an article on tenancy for the July issue of The American Magazine, but Stryker sensed bigger possibilities, telling Rothstein, “We could do a swell story; one that Life [magazine] will grab.” Stryker planned to visit Alabama and asked Rothstein to wait for him, but he was never able to make the trip and Rothstein went to Gee’s Bend alone.

Perhaps Rothstein’s most famous photo, and an icon of the Dust Bowl: a farmer and his two sons during a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936

The residents of Gee’s Bend symbolized two different things to the Resettlement Administration. On the one hand, reports about the community prepared by the agency describe the residents as isolated and primitive, people whose speech, habits, and material culture reflected an African origin and an older way of life. On the other hand, the agency’s agenda for rehabilitation implied a view of the residents as the victims of slavery and the farm-tenant system on a former plantation. The two perceptions may be seen as related: if these tenants — despite their primitive culture— could benefit from training and financial assistance, their success would demonstrate the efficacy of the programs.

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