Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985) had a career that spanned five decades of the twentieth-century, and is remembered as one of America’s finest photojournalists. His many photographs taken for the Farm Security Administration and later, Look magazine record the life of American citizens, be it farmers, war veterans, sportsmen, or presidents.
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Arthur Rothstein was born on July 17, 1915 in Manhattan, New York. He grew up in the Bronx and later attended Columbia University, completing a degree in chemistry and physics. Founding a photography club at the university, Rothstein organised exhibitions and lectures by eminent figures of the photography world including Edward Steichen. During his time at Columbia University, Rothstein met the influential economist Roy Stryker, who encouraged students to use photography in their work.
When Stryker was employed to head the photographic section of the Resettlement Administration, later the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Rothstein was the first photographer whom Stryker enlisted to help depict the effects of the Depression on America’s rural poor. His first project for the organisation was to photograph the inhabitants of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains as they were being relocated. After this, he undertook several photographic series about American farming communities. During his time working for the FSA, Rothstein produced close to 80,000 photographs, some of which have become some of the most memorable images of the Dust Bowl and the Depression era in America. His aim in taking these photographs was to ‘move people to action,’ to teach others about life and work, and his photography enabled the public to learn about the deprivation farmers faced, and helped to enact conservation plans and government aids.
Similar to other FSA photographers such as Marion Post Wolcott, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, Rothstein’s photographs were direct and immediate, revealing a great deal about the hardships of American society. Rothstein stated, ‘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.’ Despite this, Rothstein’s famous image of the skull of a dead steer became an important photograph in the debate around objectivity in documentary photography when it was revealed that he had staged the photograph in order to create a more impactful image.
In 1940, Rothstein left the FSA and began working for Look magazine. He briefly paused to serve in the war, and subsequently took on the role as Chief Photographer for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in China. He returned to the magazine in 1946 and remained there until 1971, ultimately being promoted to the position of Director of Photography.
After Look magazine, Rothstein worked for various other magazines such as Parade and The New York Times. He lectured at several universities, and also taught younger photographers, including Stanley Kubrick and Doug Kirkland. His work was published in books such as The Depression Years (1978) and America in Photographs (1985).
Exhibitions and Awards
Rothstein won more than 35 awards for his photojournalism and in 1944 co-founded the American Society of Magazine Photographers. His work has been exhibited globally at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, New York, the Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C and the U.S. Library of Congress.
Rothstein died on November 11, 1985 in New Rochelle, New York.