Gee’s Bend, Alabama

Shapecroppers of the South

Arthur Rothstein, July 1938.  Credit: The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Arthur Rothstein, July 1938. Credit: The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division


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. 

FSA Years:

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


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