July 17, 1915 - November 11, 1985
"Photography is a universal language, transcending the boundaries of race, politics, and nationality."
- Arthur Rothstein
During a career that spanned five decades, documentary photographer Arthur Rothstein provoked, entertained and informed the American people with his descriptive images. His photographs ranged from a hometown baseball game to the drama of war, from struggling rural farmers to US Presidents.
He is best known for the photographs he took while working for the Photo Unit of the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s. Rothstein also served as the director of photography for Look magazine until it stopped printing in 1971 and then for Parade magazine until his death in 1985.
Arthur Rothstein was born in Manhattan and grew up in the Bronx. At Columbia University he started the Camera Club. His photographic expertise attracted two professors, Guy Tugwell and Roy Stryker, who were beckoned to Washington DC to work for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal administration. Arthur was hoping to attend medical school but when Stryker offered him a good paying job--remember, this was the Depression--he took it. In Washington Arthur set up the darkroom for the Photo Unit of the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration (RA), which became the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1937.
Once the darkroom was set up, staffed and running, He purchased the photographic equipment that would be used by photographers in the field. Then, twenty-year-old Arthur was sent out on his first assignment as a photographer in the summer of 1935. He traveled the country documenting the plight of Americans trying to survive the Depression years. When the US geared up for war the FSA became part of the Office of War Information (OWI). After five long years on the road Arthur left the FSA-OWI for a job as staff photographer for Look Magazine. During the war years Arthur Rothstein covered Europe, India, Burma and China as a Signal Corps photographer. Directly after the war he documented the day-to-day lives of displaced persons (many of them Holocaust survivors) struggling to survive in the Shanghai Hongkew Jewish ghetto. He also documented the consequences of the Great Famine as the chief photographer for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in China (1946 and 1947).
Rothstein returned to the United States and to Look magazine where he served as director of photography until the magazine ceased to print in 1971. When Look folded Arthur Rothstein became director of photography at Parade Magazine and spent more time writing and teaching photojournalism and documentary photography until his death on November 11, 1985. He taught at several institutions including the Parsons School of Design; SI Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University; and he was a member of the faculty of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, his alma mater.
Throughout his career, Rothstein was also an innovator. He was instrumental in the invention of the Xograph (pronounced "EX-oh-graph"), which was the first printing process that enabled mass reproduction of a photograph that appeared, to the unaided eye, to be three-dimensional.
The common thread throughout Arthur's career, beyond the promotion of technical innovation, was his passion for the use and perpetuation of photojournalism and documentary photography toward the betterment of society. Rothstein was a founding member of the Photo League, which was dedicated to the use of documentary photography to effect social change. He was a member of the New York Press Photographers Association, the National Press Photographers Association and Photographic Administrators, Inc. He was a founder and former officer of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. In 1968 he was named a Fellow in the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, the oldest photographic society in the world. He was a recipient of more than 35 awards in photojournalism and he was a juror for the Pulitzer Prize.
Arthur enjoyed sharing his craft and he loved to mentor young photographers including Stanley Kubrick, Douglas Kirkland and Chester Higgins, Jr. Rothstein authored columns in photography magazines and produced nine books on photography. Arthur Rothstein left an impressive historical legacy. His photographs, and those of the photographers he mentored, continue to appear in the media and are held in the collections of many of the world's leading galleries and museums.
While a student at Columbia University, Arthur Rothstein met Professors Guy Tugwell and Roy Stryker who went to Washington to work for FDR. In 1935, the Photo Unit of the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration was created by Stryker to use photography to document and publicize the large-scale economic dislocations caused by the Great Depression and the widespread displacement and disruption of agricultural communities during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The Photo Unit also documented the progress of government programs designed to assist the displaced. In 1937, the RA became the Farm Security Administration (FSA).
Stryker initially hired Rothstein to design and construct a state of the art darkroom in Washington DC for his traveling photographers. Then, he purchased the photographic equipment. Once that was accomplished Arthur was sent into the field as a photojournalist on Wednesday, August 7, 1935, less than a month after his twentieth birthday. He boarded a train heading west. His first stop was a resettlement community, Cumberland Homesteads near Crossville, Tennessee. He made a short stop in Memphis. His next destination was the Dyess Colony, another resettlement project. From there he went to Arkansas where he went way up into the Ozark Mountains. Then, Arthur moved on to Mississippi; Vicksburg, Clarksville, Tupelo, Meridian and Hattiesburg. He took the train to Skyline Farms near Scottsboro, Alabama and he was in New Orleans, Louisiana on Labor Day of 1935. He took pictures on a visit to Wolf Creek Farms in Georgia and headed for Raleigh, North Carolina where he stopped at Penderlea Farms, also an RA project. He shot with his Leica and his Speed Graphic. Then he got back to Washington where he processed and printed the film. A month later, on October 23rd, Arthur Rothstein was on the road again. This next assignment began with a stop in Madison County in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, just 90 miles from Washington, DC, in an area that would soon become the Shenandoah National Park.
For more than five years he and other FSA photographers traveled the country on assignment for the U.S. government, documenting the plight of displaced farmers, other workers, their families and communities. Today, the public archive of FSA photographs maintained by the Library of Congress contains more than 10,000 photographs taken by Arthur Rothstein, the first photographer hired by the Resettlement Administration.
The Great Depression of the 1930s not only gave Rothstein his quintessential subject matter, it determined his whole career. The black and white photographs of the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection are a landmark in the history of documentary photography. As the country began to mobilize for World War ll, the FSA photography project became part of the Office of War Information (OWI), documenting America's mobilization for World War ll. Arthur Rothstein left the OWI and had just started to work for Look magazine when the United States went to war. The FSA-OWI photographers produced about 164,000 black and white negatives and 1600 color photographs. Everything is housed at the Library of Congress which preserves and provides access to these historical images.
"Just as the writer uses words, sentences, and paragraphs to explain ideas and communicate information, the photographer assembles his images. The single still picture may be expanded into a sequence, as a series of highlights of chronological action, or it may be combined with related photographs to produce a picture story or photo essay."
- Arthur Rothstein
Have a Question?
Assignment Key West: Arthur Rothstein Photographs
Photographs of the Florida Keys in 1938, and a celebration of the centenary of Arthur Rothstein's birth in 1915
Key West Art & Historical Society
Custom House Museum, 281 Front Street, Key West, Florida
(July 17 - November 10, 2015)
Arthur Rothstein: 20th Century Picture Stories
Erie Art Museum, Erie, Pennsylvania (September 20, 2013 - February 9, 2014)
American Workers: Surviving the Great Depression
An exhibition of photographs by Arthur Rothstein presented at Rotunda Gallery
New Rochelle (NY) City Hall (September - November, 2012).
- Documentary Photography, January 1986
- Photojournalism, March 1984
- Arthur Rothstein: Words and Pictures, March 1984
- Arthur Rothstein’s America in Photographs 1930-1980, October 1984
- American West in the Thirties: 122 Photographs, February 1982
- The Depression Years as Photographed by Arthur Rothstein, March 1, 1978
- Photojournalism: Pictures for magazines and newspapers, 1970
- Look at Us, etc, etc., 1967
- Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs Online
- Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York): Photo Collection
- Museum of the City of New York Photo Collection
- The Jewish Museum (New York) Photo Collection
- Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College Chicago
- "Where do we go from here?" The Photo League show, NYPL, 2006
- Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA
- Museum of Modern Art (New York) Photo Collection
- J. Paul Getty Museum
- New York Public Library Online Digital Collection
- “This Great Nation Will Endure” Photographs of the Great Depression
- Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, 2004-2005
- The Bitter Years, Steichen Exhibition, Luxembourg
- Cleveland Museum of Art
Arthur Rothstein arrived in the Dust Bowl in April of 1936. He was 21 years old, the son of Jewish immigrants, born and raised in New York City. Fresh from Columbia University, Rothstein had been the first photographer hired by Roy Stryker, his former professor, at the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal agency that, from 1935 to 1936, relocated struggling families to communities planned by the federal government. The photography unit, later part of the Farm Security Administration, documented for the public not only the multitude of problems the nation was facing, but what the government was doing about them.
Rothstein—who learned how to drive a car in order to take the job—had been working for Stryker less than a year when he arrived in Boise City, Oklahoma. Fourteen miles south, at the homestead of Art Coble in rural Cimarron County, he shot the most famous photograph of his career. "I was about to get into my car when I turned to wave to [Coble and his two sons]," Rothstein later remembered. "And I looked and saw this man bending into the wind, with one of the boys in front of him and another one behind him, and great swirls of sand all around, which made the sky and the earth become one. And I said, 'What a picture this is!' and I just picked up my camera and went 'click.' One photograph, one shot, one negative." The image Rothstein captured at the Coble farm was soon widely reprinted across the country, touching emotional chords with everyone who saw it, becoming the iconic picture of the Dust Bowl and one of the most widely reproduced photographs of the 20th century.
During his five years with the FSA, Rothstein shot some of the most significant photographs ever taken of rural and small-town America. He went on to a successful commercial career as the Director of Photography at Look and Parade magazines.
Rothstein died in November of 1985. He is today remembered as one of America's most important and influential photojournalists.
FRIENDS OF ARTHUR ROTHSTEIN RECALL THE CRAFTSMAN AND THE MENTOR
By FRAN ALLER
November 17, 1985
ARTHUR ROTHSTEIN took his most famous photograph when he was 21 years old, yet he devoted the rest of his life to the profession, mastering virtually all the styles and techniques of photography. But the photojournalist, who died last Monday at his home in New Rochelle, at the age of 70, is most remembered and appreciated by his colleagues for his willingness to share his knowledge with others in a profession in which strong egos constantly compete with each other.
Mr. Rothstein, who received his first camera as a present and took up photography as a hobby, assisted his Columbia University professor Roy Stryker by preparing photographs for his classes. Later, when Mr. Stryker became the director of the historical section of the Federal Farm Security Administration, he hired Mr. Rothstein to document the work of the agency, formed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt under the New Deal to bring financial relief and give technical aid to American farmers. Mr. Rothstein and a dozen of the nation's top photographers, including Walker Evans, Carl Mydans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks, produced photographs that helped illustrate the full impact of the Depression and drought upon rural America. These works are still considered among the most important documents of those harsh times.
Mr. Rothstein spent five years crisscrossing the country in a 1936 Ford packed with camera equipment, a sleeping bag and a portable stove. It was a lonely yet exicting life for a New York City man who had not traveled much. But Mr. Rothstein attributed the success of his early photographs to this lack of experience, which allowed him to approach things with ''fresh eyes and a naivete.''
His most famous photograph is that of a farmer and his sons caught in a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, in 1936. Mr. Rothstein had been photographing Arthur Coble and his sons Milton and Darrel as they attended to chores when dust blown by vicious winds made it impossible to see and breathe. The Cobles started walking to their farmhouse and Mr. Rothstein returned to his car. When he turned to wave goodbye, he photographed the family fighting the wind -with the last frame on the roll of film. Had Mr. Rothstein not made it a practice to always leave one frame for emergencies, this immortal picture would never have been taken.
Such attention to details was a Rothstein characteristic, as was his dedication to delivering an image as clearly as possible, colleagues said. To accomplish this, he always got to know his subjects - often living with them, learning their life styles and gaining their trust - before photographing them.
''His pictures have a particular integrity, an honesty you don't see today,'' said Susan Vermazen, picture editor of New York magazine and a close family friend.
''All of his life he was deeply moved by the torment of people and their triumph in tragedy; he saw dignity in the most urgent of circumstances,'' said Walter Anderson, editor of Parade magazine, where Mr. Rothstein worked until his death.
Mr. Rothstein's journeys as a young man would forever influence him. ''He saw the worst of life but came away stronger, not weaker,'' said Mr. Anderson, who described him as eternally optimistic and energetic.
On a lighter note, Mr. Rothstein was so taken by the way of life in the American West that he always relaxed in Western-style clothes and had a large collection of big brass Western belt buckles that he wore.
After his work for the Farm Security Administration and a short stint as a staff photographer for Look magazine, Mr. Rothstein joined the Office of War Information in Washington in 1941 and then the United States Army in 1943. His assignments took him to the China-Burma-India theater, and after his discharge in 1945 he remained in China to work as chief photographer of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and to take more highly acclaimed photographs.
In 1946 Mr. Rothstein rejoined Look as director of photography and remained with the magazine until its demise in 1971. In 1972, he joined Parade magazine and moved from director of photography to the associate editor's post he held until his death.
Even though he was very concerned with developing the careers of other photographers, Mr. Rothstein never put down his own camera and he particularly enjoyed experimenting with new equipment, techniques and styles. He has published photographs of the United States Presidents from F.D.R. through Ronald Reagan. His last book, ''Documentary Photography,'' will be published this month by Focal Press of Stoneham, Mass.
''His lifetime goal was to see photographers recognized not as snappers but as professionals in their field,'' Mr. Anderson said. ''He would fight for photos and photographers every minute of every day. When he became the first photographer to be selected as a Pulitzer juror, he felt that he had reached his goal.''
Mr. Rothstein was instrumental in convincing Parade's editors not only to give photographers credit when their work appeared in the magazine, but also to pay them more. Those who knew him said Mr. Rothstein was extremely proud of his own photographic accomplishments, but he never dwelled on them and was more interested in the talents of others. ''If he could think of a photographer who could do a better job than he, he would give him the assignment,'' Mr. Anderson recalled.
Mr. Rothstein is remembered by colleagues for his warm personality, his honesty and his straightforwardness.
''He commands respect just by his nature and demeanor,'' said the photographer Eddie Adams of the short and and bald-headed Mr. Rothstein. ''When you first meet him you might think he is cold because he is so formal and neat, but the more you know him, the more you like him.''
He made a habit of taking roses and candy to the secretaries in the office, Mr. Anderson recalled.
Several younger photographers, along with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mr. Adams, credit Mr. Rothstein with giving them their start. Mr. Adams recalled showing his portfolio to Mr. Rothstein, then at Look magazine. ''He was very pleasant but basically told me there were no openings,'' said Mr. Adams, who takes photographs for Parade and Time magazine. Mr. Adams, feeling slighted, wrote to Mr. Rothstein challenging him to a picture duel. ''He then wrote me the nicest letter I've ever received, saying that I had misunderstood him and that he in fact used my photographs for classes.'' The two photgraphers became close friends and years later, Mr. Rothstein brought Mr. Adams to Parade magazine.
''He has done our profession a great service, because he was very articulate and responsible and he had a mind which explored and innovated,'' said Douglas Kirkland, who worked with him at Look magazine and who is known for his glamorous photographs of famous people. ''He was a role model for myself and others.''
Mr. Rothstein was very much a family man. He and his wife, Grace (a lawyer who later switched to a teaching career), had four children - Robert, Ann, Eve and Daniel -all in their 30's. ''He was very laissez faire with us in terms of direction, but wherever he saw any creative talent in us he always encouraged it,'' said Robert, a professional musician who changed his last name to Stoner for professional reasons.
By the time he decided to start a family, Mr. Rothstein had settled down to more administrative-type positions, Mr. Stoner said. Whenever he did take on a story requiring traveling, the whole family usually went along. A Look photographic spread on an American family traveling coast to coast by car depicted the adventures of none other than the Rothstein clan.
Lining the wall along the staircase of the family's home, photographs taken semi-annually document the family's growth during the last 37 years.
For all the thousands of pictures he took and all the people he has influenced, Mr. Rothstein is still associated with his dust-storm photograph. He returned to Oklahoma in 1978 and photographed Darrel Coble - the youngest boy in the earlier picture, now a middle-aged man - and his two sons walking through fields of waist-high wheat on the family farm.
And Mr. Adams, if he had been commissioned to photograph Mr. Rothstein, would have taken him to that farm one more time. ''I would have him leaning aganst a large format camera on a tripod. I'd want him isolated in that great open space,'' Mr. Adams said.