From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Arthur Rothstein Comments on a Famous Photo

The photographer explains his art.


UPDATE: I've redone the Library of Congress links in this post, and I hope they'll work now. If they don't, please let me know.

FSA photo by Arthur Rothstein
Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936.

Arthur Rothstein worked as a photographer during the Great Depression for the Resettlement Agency, later known as the Farm Security Agency (FSA).  One of Rothstein's most famous FSA photographs appears above. (Click the image for a larger view.)

Rothstein commented on the photograph in a 1964 interview at the Smithsonian:

You may remember the stories in those days about the black blizzards that swept across the plains and even darkened the sky in New York City...

Well, it was a dramatic catastrophe in American agriculture. Strangely enough, it was a very difficult thing to show in pictures, but I lived in the Dust Bowl for several months and went out every day and took pictures.

In the process, one day, wandering around through Cimarron County in Oklahoma, which is in the panhandle of Oklahoma, I photographed this farm and the people who lived on the farm. The farmer and his two children, two little boys, were walking past a shed on their property and I took this photograph with the dust swirling all around them.

I had no idea at the time that it was going to become a famous photograph, but it looked like a good picture to me and I took it. And I took a number of other pictures on the same property. And then I went on to some other farms and took those pictures. This particular picture turned out to be the picture that was quite famous.

It was a picture that had a very simple kind of composition, but there was something about the swirling dust and the shed behind the farmer. What it did was the kind of thing Roy [Stryker, his FSA supervisor] always talked about-it showed an individual in relation to his environment.

Of course this is the sort of thing that painters from time immemorial have been trying to do-to show man in relation to his environment. You know the old axiom that " Art is the expression of man," so here, if this has any art, it's because it's an expression of man.

Source: Arthur Rothstein Oral History

In the same document, Rothstein also explains a controversial photo of a skull lying on the sunbaked soil of the South Dakota badlands.

One of my favorite Rothstein FSA photos is "Car on the plain", taken in October 1939 in Washington County, Colorado.

A short biography of Rothstein
Links to online archives of Rothstein images

5 comments:

Collagemama said...

This morning the click for larger photo didn't work. I hope you'll write and explain how to add that feature.

alissasanderson said...

Thank you for this...this is right up my alley. Off now to follow your links!

Genevieve said...

I apologize for the bad links. Linking to anything at the Library of Congress is a bit of a trick. I should have restarted the browser or emptied the cache and tested them. This morning, they didn't work for me either. If anyone has a problem with the links, please let me know.

Genevieve said...

Collagemama, I am not sure what you are asking about. Most all Blogger photos can be clicked for a larger image, and that's done automatically by Blogger.

I wanted the image to link to its webpage at the Library of Congress, so I altered the link.

The original link looked something like this:

<a href="http://full.size.image" style="whatever"> <img="http://thumbnail.image" style="whatever"></a>

I changed the link so it would open a page at the Library of Congress:

Then the link looked like this:

<a href="http://Library-of-congress.webpage"> <img="http://thumbnail.image" style="whatever"></a>

This might not even be what you were wondering about!

Collagemama said...

As Gilda Radner's Emily Litella would say, "Never mind." About halfway through the morning at work, after the coffee had taken effect, it all made sense.

The hand-me-down family stories of the Dust Bowl come alive when you see that photo. Our children need to see it.

Thanks.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.