“A Lens on FDR’s New Deal:” Photographs by Arthur Rothstein, 1935-1945

Dear Friend of Roosevelt House:

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck New York, we were in the midst of a wonderful exhibition of photographs from President Roosevelt’s New Deal taken by New Yorker Arthur Rothstein. A powerful pictorial archive of the impact of economic downturn on everyday Americans, this revelatory collection serves also as a reminder of how Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Administration confronted not one but two existential crises in the 1930s and 40s: the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II.

While we have been compelled to close Roosevelt House until further notice, we are pleased now to present the exhibition to you online. Our thanks go to Deborah Gardner, curator/historian of Roosevelt House, who mounted the original in collaboration with The Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project, and Aaron Fineman, Communications Media Manager, who converted it into an online exhibition.

In the weeks and months to come, our goal is to continue serving our students, faculty, and general public with encore programming, new online discussions with experts and authors, and access to the history of Roosevelt House and its celebrated occupants, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

To support these endeavors as a continuing service to those who are sheltered in place, but rely on our many services for their official or continuing education, we invite you to support the House as it strives to pursue its mission in these unprecedented times (please see below).

Many thanks, and all of us at Roosevelt House and Hunter College wish you good health.

Harold Holzer
Jonathan F. Fanton Director

To all our Roosevelt House participants, visitors, and guests: we are grateful and comforted to know that you remain connected to the Hunter family during this difficult moment in history. As we work to put our programming archive at your disposal, we are also aware that some Hunter students now face daunting challenges regarding lost jobs, diminished income, pending bills, and access to computers and software that will enable them to continue their semesters through Hunter online learning. Please consider supporting Hunter students by making gift to the Coronavirus Emergency Assistance Fund. Thank you. Click Here to Donate to the Coronavirus Emergency Assistance Fund

President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated dozens of bold and creative programs immediately after his inauguration in March 1933. Under the banner of a “New Deal for the American people” he used executive orders, sweeping legislation, and new federal agencies to boost employment and curb the disastrous financial practices that had led to the Great Depression. His goal was to restore both the economy and the spirit of the nation through “relief, recovery and reform.”

The Roosevelt administration deployed enormous resources to alleviate unemployment in urban areas, mitigate severe rural poverty, and repair the vast drought-stricken regions of the Great Plains. In April 1935 FDR signed an executive order creating the Resettlement Administration, a large-scale experiment to create new rural and suburban communities and restore millions of acres of ravaged farm and pasture lands. It would be renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1937.

To document and publicize the Resettlement mission, Roy Stryker—head of its Information Division — immediately hired a talented young New York photographer, Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985). He was the first of several men and women assigned to record conditions across the nation: the before and after, the misery and recovery, and the daily life of Americans and their communities.

Using agency guidelines and his own resourcefulness, Rothstein spent seven years traveling around the country on photo assignments. The resulting portraits, landscape and town scenes, and communal profiles reflected his ability to quickly put people at ease and earn their trust. He was also adept at capturing momentary images that would become classics of documentary photography. His photos of New Yorkers share the same humanity as those of itinerant farm workers, TVA linesmen, and small town schoolchildren. Hispanic Americans and African Americans, new immigrants and descendants of 18th century settlers, all found their place in his viewfinder.

As America mobilized for World War II, the FSA photo unit became part of the Office of War Information. In 1943 Rothstein enlisted as an officer in the US Army Signal Corps. His wide-ranging responsibilities included overseeing photo and film production in the China-Burma-India Theater. In 1946 he served as chief photographer in China for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).

After the war, Rothstein had a very successful career as Director of Photography for Look and Parade magazines. But he never forgot his first decade of work inspired by President Roosevelt. In 1976, he drafted a book proposal for a selection of his favorite New Deal-era photographs organized around themes drawn from popular culture of the time. The project was never realized. A Lens on FDR’s New Deal brings this unpublished, recently rediscovered project to light.

The exhibition has been co-curated by Roosevelt House Historian Deborah Gardner and Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project Co-Directors Annie Segan and Brodie Hefner; it was designed by Production Assistant Daniel Culkin and adapted for the web by Communications Electronic Media Manager  Aaron Fineman. Roosevelt House is grateful for the generous loan of resources by the Legacy Project and for Brodie Hefner’s extraordinary contributions to the production of the exhibition. Special thanks to the Stepanski Family Charitable Trust for the generous grant that made this exhibition possible.

The Great Depression: A Photographic Document

In 1976, Arthur Rothstein sent a book proposal entitled The Great Depression: A Photographic Document to Dover Publications, a successful New York publisher of quality paperbacks. The outline had an introduction — President Roosevelt’s entire first inaugural address of March 4, 1933 — followed by 15 topical sections headed by excerpts from popular poems and songs, and concluding with a 1964 interview that Rothstein had recorded with the Archives of American Art. Eventually, Dover published several books on 1930s America with Rothstein’s photos, but this proposal was not fully realized. In this exhibit, we follow Rothstein’s recently rediscovered original book proposal, with minor modifications and additions that bring to light some of his lesser known photo assignments but which also illustrate important aspects of the New Deal. All photos are by Rothstein unless otherwise identified.


Arthur Rothstein Recalls Joining The New Deal and The Resettlement Administration

To me it was a great educational experience. I was not only born in New York City, but I went to school in New York City and I even went to college in New York City. So, coming from this, you might say, very provincial New York background, it was a wonderful opportunity to travel around the country and see what the rest of the United States was like. Also, there was a kind of feeling of great excitement in Washington in those days, the feeling that you were in on something new and exciting, a missionary sense of dedication to this project, of making the world a better place to live in, making the United States a better place to live in.

There was a kind of evolutionary process. It was quite definite that photographs were important in making this historical record of the Resettlement Administration’s activities. Roy Stryker, at the very beginning, had some pretty definite ideas as to what he wanted. He was tremendously interested in rural America and he operated this photograph section more like a seminar in an educational institution than a governmental agency, which made it all very interesting. Roy made everyone who worked with him, including me, read a great deal. We were constantly given books to read, new books that Roy had picked up that he felt were applicable to our work, and we had long discussions; we would have discussions sometimes until one or two o’clock in the morning. Roy loved to phone people at night. He was a great catalyst and a great stimulator, and he made people think about their work.

Interview, 1964, Archives of American Art.

Arthur Rothstein at exhibition, age 23, in 1938

Arthur Rothstein (age 23) at exhibition (1938).

Arthur Rothstein and The FSA Spirit

We had a great social responsibility. This is one thing that we all have in common. We were dedicated to the idea that our lives can be improved, that man is the master of his environment and that it’s possible for us to live a better life, not only materially, but spiritually as well. We were all tremendously socially conscious. This had nothing to do with photography, but it was evident in everybody involved in this project, from Roy [Stryker] right on through even to the secretaries… They were all inspired with a kind of missionary zeal-a dedication for social improvement…. This esprit de corps, I think, this feeling of all being directly involved and participating, also contributed a great deal to the success of the whole operation. People weren’t just doing a job mechanically; they were doing it with a sense of enthusiasm and excitement.

Interview, 1964, Archives of American Art.

The Great Depression: A Photographic Document

1. President Roosevelt – The Truth

This is a day of national consecration, and I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our nation impels.

This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.

So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself-nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933

President Roosevelt visits farmer who is receiving drought relief grant. Mandan, North Dakota. 1936

President Roosevelt visits farmer who is receiving drought relief grant. Mandan, North Dakota (1936).

2. President Roosevelt – A Pledge

These are unprecedented and unusual times… Never before, never before in modern history have the essential differences between the two major American parties stood out in such striking contrast as they do today. Republican leaders not only have failed in material things, they have failed in National vision, because in disaster they have held out no hope, they have pointed out no path for the people below to climb back to places of security and of safety in American life.

I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and courage. This is more than a political campaign, it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, acceptance of Democratic Party nomination for the presidency, Chicago, Illinois, July 2, 1932

In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran against President Herbert Hoover, the Republican candidate. In a resounding victory FDR won 22.8 million votes to Hoover’s 15.7 million, 472 electoral votes to Hoover’s 59, and took 42 states to Hoover’s six states. In 1936, his sweep would be even greater, with only two states (Vermont and Maine) voting for the Republican candidate, Kansas Governor Alf Landon, and gaining an unprecedented electoral vote of 523 to 8.

3. Wall Street

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered.
I’ve seen lots of funny men.
Some rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

— Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), Pretty Boy Floyd

The bank that failed, Kansas. 1936

The bank that failed, Kansas (1936).

Although there were weaknesses in the American and world economies by the late 1920s, the official start of the Great Depression is considered to be the stock market crash that took place over the course of six days, from October 24 to October 29, “Black Tuesday,” when stock prices collapsed in the face of an unprecedented volume of trading. The effects of the crash rippled out to every region of the country. Recovery would take more than a decade as President Roosevelt’s programs stimulated the growth of jobs and industry.

4. Unemployment

I haven’t never been in jail,
And I haven’t never paid no fine, baby.
I wants a job to make my livin’, cause stealing ain’t on my line.
When Mr. Roosevelt sent out those unemployment cards,
I just knowed sure that work was goin’ to start.

Big Bill Broonzy (1903-1958), “Unemployment Stomp”

Waiting for better times, J. Huffman of Grassy Butte, North Dakota, sits in front of his closed store.1936

Waiting for better times, J. Huffman of Grassy Butte, North Dakota, sites in front of his closed store (1936).

From 1929 to 1933, the unemployment rate rose to a stupendous  25%. Without the change in government policy represented by the New Deal — to assist Americans by providing funding for jobs and projects, and thus funneling money into the economy — it would have taken much longer for recovery and many would have been permanently left behind, homeless, hungry, and ill. As the economy stabilized, unemployment slowly began dropping, reaching about 9.5% in 1941.

5. Erosion, Flood and Drought

The mule’s gone lame and the hens won’t lay.
Corn’s way down, wheat won’t pay.
Hogs no better, steers too cheap.
Cows quit milking and the meat won’t keep.
Oats all heated. Spuds all froze.
Wheat crop’s busted, wind still blows.
Looks some gloomy, I’ll admit, but
Git up, dobbin, we ain’t down yet.

Anonymous, “We Ain’t Down Yet” From Bulletin of the Farmers’ Union Educational Service

The Dust Bowl was environmental and human disaster encompassing an estimated  100 million acres in parts of Kansas, the Dakotas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. Farmlands in these arid regions were parched by multi-year droughts in the 1930s. Farming practices that had replaced deep rooted prairie grasses with wheat crops left the unanchored soil vulnerable to erosion and loss. An extraordinary series of savage windstorms stripped away the topsoil, blowing it all the way to the East coast on occasion; the constant dust sickened many people, killing some with “dust” pneumonia. Both the Resettlement Administration (1935) and its successor, the Farm Security Administration (1937),  undertook the massive task of restoring these lands with improved farming and irrigation practices as well as social programs to assist the tens of thousands who were forced to leave their homes and farms.

Dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma. 1936

Dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma (1936).

Arthur Rothstein on Dust Storm, Cimarron, Oklahoma. 1936.

This was an assignment that had been given to me by Roy [Stryker] – to go to the Dust Bowl, to Oklahoma, Kansas, to Texas, to those area that were being devastated by drought, that were suffering from wind erosion. 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…   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 always talked about-it showed an individual in relation to his environment.

Well, when my picture of the dust storm was printed widely, over and over and over again, it made people realize that here was a tragedy that was affecting people-it wasn’t just affecting crops, but it was affecting people-the relationships between the dust storms and the migrations of people out of this part of the United States and the way it was affecting them individually. This photograph had a great deal of influence on people in the East, for example, who had no contact and no sense of identity with this poor farmer walking across the dusty soil on his farm in Oklahoma-it gave him a sense of identity. And it helped me put a lot of these soil-conservation practices in, and provide legislation for soil conservation to remedy these conditions. So this picture was not controversial; it was informative-the dust storm picture. In the beginning, it was a record; after that it became a news picture, it then became a feature photograph, eventually it became a historical photograph, and now it’s considered a work of art in most museums. It’s a picture that went through a kind of evolutionary process all by itself. It has a life of its own.

Interview, 1964, Archives of American Art.

6. Migrants

I’m a-blowing down this old dusty road, Lord, Lord,
An’ I ain’t a-gonna be treated this a-way.

I’m a-goin’ where the water taste like wine, Lord,
An’ I ain’t a-gonna be treated this way.

I’m a-goin’ where them dust storms never blow, blow, blow,
An’ I ain’t a-gonna be treated this way.

They say I’m a dust bowl refugee, Lord, Lord,
An’ I ain’t a-gonna be treated this way.

I’m a-lookin’ for a job at honest pay, Lord, Lord,
An’ I ain’t a-gonna be treated this way.

My children need three square meals a day, Lord,
An’ I ain’t a-gonna be treated this way.

Woody Guthrie and Lee Hays, “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad”

Oregon or Bust. Vernon Evans near Missoula, Montana (1936).

The internal migration during the 1930s was the largest the U.S. had ever known as tens of thousands sought better opportunities. Dust Bowl migrants who had lost the farms they owned, and tenant farmers and sharecroppers who were evicted from their homes packed up and moved. By foot, horse-drawn wagons, cars, and trucks, they took to the roads seeking temporary work in agriculture or permanent residence where jobs were available. The pejorative term for all these migrants was “Okie,” although the majority did not come from Oklahoma. A vast number set out for California which used various tactics to keep out “troublemakers,” and to protect its own labor market,  including stops at the border, arrests, and fear. The federal government had to intervene and the Farm Security Administration set up refugee camps with shelter, food, showers, nursery schools, health clinics, and community activities; these were well managed and self-governed but they benefited only a fraction of the migrants. Eleanor Roosevelt visited several FSA camps in California in April 1940 and reported on them in My Day, her newspaper column.

6. Migrants (continued)

Dorothea Lang, FSA Photographer.

I went down to Imperial Valley, California, to photograph the harvesting of one of the crops… The assignment was the beginning of the migration, of the migratory workers as they start there in the early part of the season and then as they moved on…. I stopped at a gas station to get some gas, and there was a car full of people, a family there at that gas station. I waited while they were getting there gas, and they looked very woebegone to me. They were American whites. I looked at the license plate on the car, and it was Oklahoma. I got out of the car, and I approached them and asked something about which way they were going, were they looking for work, and they said, “We’ve been blown out.” I questioned what they meant, and then they told me about the dust storm. They were the first arrivals that I saw. There were the people who got up that day quick and left. They saw they had no crop back there. They had to get out…. I photographed it. I had those first ones. That was the beginning of the first day of the landslide that cut this continent and it’s still going on. Don’t mean that people haven’t migrated before, but this shaking off of people from their own roots started with those big storms and it was like a movement of the earth, you see, and that rainy afternoon I remember, because I made the discovery. It was up to that time unobserved.

Interview, 1964, Archives of American Art.

6. Migrants

Eleanor Roosevelt visits FSA migrant camps in California, April 1940, as recounted in My Day, her nationally syndicated newspaper column.

April 4. …We climbed into a little four seater plane and were off over the California mountains on our way to the San Joaquin Valley.

We could see the snow on the tops of the mountains merged in the green hills, which are very green just now because of the abundance of rain. Then the rich land of the valley lay beneath us, and our half hour in the air landed us in Bakersfield with its hundreds of oil wells. What a rich country! The most marvelous land where alfalfa can be cut six or seven times a year and almost anything will grow when you have water. In addition to all this, there is oil from which many people have made fortunes.

We were met at Bakersfield by M.L.E. Hewes Jr., the regional director of the Farm Security Administration, and several of his staff. I was anxious to get as complete a picture as possible of the conditions under which migratory workers are living and so visited first some squatter camps and some privately owned camps. Squatters pay no rent and may be moved at any time. Private camps are large pieces of land leased by an individual, who then re-leases it into lots about big enough to hold a tent and a car.

Some members of three families with whom I talked in the first private camp, had been driven out of a squatters’ camp. They all came from Oklahoma and before that might have come from a New England village. There were young women with their children and women who looked old before their time. But it seemed to me that there was a universal effort to make life as decent as possible under appallingly difficult circumstances.

…You pay five dollars a month for your lot in this camp because you get an electric light in your tent, without it you pay only three dollars. There are two outside toilets for the use of the fifty or more families. There are some hydrants from which you may draw water.

April 5. Here we continue yesterday’s description of my day in the beautiful valley. We saw another type of migratory labor camp, where the individuals own whatever they put up on a small piece of land. Here each one has his own water pipe, but it is frequently immediately next to the outside toilet. The shelter put up by the individual is built of boxes, scraps of tin, even bags; in fact, anything which can be picked up for nothing is used. When one individual moves out, he has the right to sell this strange conglomeration to another…

We visited the Kern County camp where the county authorities take some responsibility. The land is free, they put in water and electricity and people are given sites on which to pitch their tents. In this camp there is a recreation hall with a WPA worker in charge. An attempt is made to have a planned recreation program and to give some instruction in weaving and rug making. There are also some tubs and a washing machine installed by the county. There are more toilets and even a few showers, but the tents are pitched on the ground and in wet weather it is deep in mud.

… Finally, I saw two government [FSA] camps, one at Shafter and one at Visalia. For migratory workers, these camps indicate possible standards for decent existence. There is a nursery school for the youngsters, there are playing grounds for the elders, there are clinics and, in Shafter, a cooperative store. Above all, they are run by the people themselves so that democracy may be seen in action.

April 6. I am far behind in my regular diary but I must finish the impressions of last Tuesday, because that day will stand out in my mind for a long time as a vital human experience.

The people of California must be proud of this effort to find a way to meet the problem of the migratory worker, who must always be with us because he is needed to follow the crops. This problem exists in other parts of the country as well as in California, but here they are finding a solution to the question of how to make life possible for workers who must always travel to harvest the crops.

The second problem, that of the mass of people who have been uprooted from their old homes in the Middle West or in the Southwest, cannot be answered by these government camps. A permanent solution, somewhere, somehow, is needed. We must find land again for these families to settle down on, so they can again be self-respecting independent Americans. Above everything else, I carried away from my day in the migratory camps, a feeling of pride in our people and an admiration for the indomitable courage which can continue to have faith in the future when present conditions seem almost unbearable.

This is a heavy burden and difficult situation temporarily for California, but in the end, I cannot help feeling that people such as these must be an asset to any state when they are finally given an opportunity to work out their salvation. I must also take this opportunity to pay a tribute to the personnel in the Farm Security Administration Camps and in the Administration as a whole. From the architect, who plans the little farm home on the edge of the camps, to the camp managers and regional director, there was no one who was not vitally interested in the people and their welfare. When you deal with human beings who are living under great strain with many conflicting interests to complicate the situation, it requires an amount of wisdom and tact which is not often found for the price of a government salary. Therefore, one must conclude that much of this service is done for love, and the rest of us must take off our hats to those who do it.

7. Workers and Unions

Fort Loudoun Dam, Tennessee Part of 1300 men in the 7 am to 3 pm shift. 1942

Fort Loudoun Dam, Tennessee Part of 1300 men in the 7 am to 3 pm shift (1942).

The union fights the battles of freedom.
And the boss comes tumbling down.
We’re fighting for a contract,
For recognition, too.
We know we’ll win that contract,
With the proper help from you.
We’ve told you all our story,
We’ve told you where we stand.
You can help us win the glory,
For our striking union band.

Anonymous, the Newspaper Guild strike, Chicago, 1938

*The original section 8, The Rich, has not been included in this exhibit.

9. Rural Poverty*

Pete Seeger sings at American Youth Conference (1941).

When the farmer comes to town,
With his wagon broken down,
The farmer is the man that feeds ‘em all.
Lives on credit ‘til the fall
And his pants are wearin’ thin.
His condition it’s a sin.
He’s forgot that he’s the man that feeds ’em all.

c.1890s. Collected by Charles Seeger for the Resettlement Administration.
Background: Traditional song dates back to 1890s and made popular by Pete Seeger.

Girl at Gee’s Bend and Large Family at Gee’s Bend, Alabama. February and April 1937.

Girl at Gee’s Bend, Alabama (February 1937).

Gee’s Bend was a relatively isolated community of approximately 700 African Americans who were tenant farmers on land where their ancestors had been slaves. Rothstein’s interest in documenting this settlement grew out of Congressional discussions for legislation to improve the lot of such low income farmers through training in better agricultural practices and financial assistance. The eventual bill created the Farm Security Administration (July 1937) which incorporated the Resettlement Administration, and it would channel various forms of aid to Gee’s Bend in the following years. In addition, the government bought the land and sold it to the tenants in the 1940s. Rothstein’s photos were featured in a New York Times Magazine article in August 1937. In recent decades, the community has become famous for its quilts whose designs are quite different from traditional American patterns in their use of color, materials, abstraction, and patterns, and these have become an important source of income for families. In another photo in the Rural Poverty section of this exhibit, a woman can be seen working on a popular 1930s pattern, the Dresden Plate.

The only real capital of a nation is its natural resources and its human beings. So long as we take care of and make the most of both of them, we shall survive as a strong nation, a successful nation, and a progressive nation.

FDR, Speaking to the National Education Association at the New York World’s Fair grounds, June 30, 1938.

Arthur Rothstein, Honing Technique in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Mrs. Bailey Nicholson, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia (1935).

Well, there were great advantages, of course, in being a provincial New Yorker, because everything seemed fresh and exciting. Now the first assignment, if I remember correctly, was in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. We had a group of people there that were being moved out to make way for a national park, Shenandoah National Park, and these people were all people who lived in the hills and the hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains not far from Washington, about eighty miles from Washington. I went out there and was in a cabin on the top of a mountain for a few weeks, walked around and became acquainted with these people. At the beginning they were very shy about having pictures taken, but I would carry my camera along and make no attempt to take pictures. They just got to know me, and finally, they didn’t mind if I took a few pictures. I took quite a few unusual pictures at that time using a Leica camera and a technique that is almost a standard.

A technique that I developed out of necessity all by myself which I call the “unobtrusive camera,” the idea of becoming a part of the environment that the people are in to such an extent that they’re not even aware that pictures are being taken. And I did this in 1935 on the first assignment that I did for the Resettlement Administration. I didn’t do it deliberately or consciously; I did it out of necessity. It was the only way I could get these pictures, you see. The purpose of the project was to photograph these people who were going to be moved out and photograph them in such a way that you had some idea of how they lived and what they did, because their entire way of life was going to be destroyed. They were going to be taken out of this environment and moved into shiny new houses where they would no longer have the picturesque quality that they had living in the hills. This record that I made I think served a very useful purpose. It showed how a certain group of people in the United States lived at a particular time, and they no longer exist. I think that it has a great deal of value. Some of the pictures I made were good enough to be considered fairly fine examples of photography.

But before I went out I had long discussions with Roy Stryker about what I was going to do and what I was going to show. Roy was the one who made me aware of the fact that there is a great deal of significance in small details. He made me aware of the fact that it was important, say, to photograph the corner of a cabin showing an old shoe and a bag of flour; or it was important to get a close-up of a man’s face; and it was important to show a window stuffed with rags. He made me conscious of all these things, and I just went out and did them. I enjoyed doing them, and in the process of doing them I developed a certain sense of design and order and composition, and combined that with the use of a miniature camera, which at the time was only six or seven years old. Using the small, unobtrusive camera, and doing all these things, I came up with at that time-what seemed at that time-to be remarkable photography.

Interview, 1964, Archives of American Art.

10. Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)

My name is William Edwards.
I live down Cove Creek way.
I’m working on the project
They call the T.V.A.
Oh, see them boys a-comin’,
Their government they trust.
Just hear their hammers ringing.
They’ll build that dam or bust.

I meant to marry Sally but work I could not find;​
The T.V.A. was started and surely eased my mind.​
For things are surely movin’ down here in Tennessee;​
Good times for all the valley, for Sally and for me. ​

Possibly from a ballad by Jilson Setters (1861-1942). Full lyrics for The T.V.A. Song by Jean Thomas can be viewed online here.

Jackhammers at Douglas Dam, Tennessee. 1941

Jackhammers at Douglas Dam, Tennessee (1941).

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was created early in the New Deal, with legislation signed in May, 1933. The goal was to be a regional planning agency to build dams to generate power and provide electricity to a large section suffering from extreme poverty, as well as bring industry and jobs to the area. The main focus of TVA activities was Tennessee and Alabama, with additional sections of Georgia, Kentucky, and Mississippi, smaller areas in  North Carolina, and Virginia. The TVA itself employed thousands, and it would assist farmers by making fertilizer, educating them about improved techniques, and restoring forests and land and water-based habitats. Because the government-owned TVA was a striking change from privately owned utilities, and the construction of its dams displaced around 15,000 people, it had detractors but in the long term the economic, social, and environmental benefits it brought to the region outweighed the criticisms.

Arthur Rothstein on FSA Pictures

I spent very little time in Washington. I was out in the field most of the time. Sometimes I’d be gone for seven or eight weeks at a time, and I had no idea of knowing what the reaction was. I did know that the pictures were used a great deal. Now I think the reason they were used a great deal was because first of all, we were covering subjects that were of great interest. Secondly, we were covering them with a great deal of skill, and spending more time producing interesting pictures than the average news photographer could. And three, the pictures were available free of charge. So the pictures were used widely. I think the pictures were all honest. There was a great deal of honesty in these pictures. Roy [Stryker] was a great believer in the integrity of a photograph. He would never countenance any kind of fakery in the photograph.

Interview, 1964, Archives of American Art.

11. Education

One-room schoolhouse at Skyline Farms, Alabama (1937).

There may be times when men and women in the turmoil of change lose touch with the civilized gains of centuries of education: but the gains of education are never really lost. Books may be burned, and cities sacked, but truth, like the yearning for freedom, lives in the hearts of humble men and women. The ultimate victory of tomorrow is with democracy, and through democracy with education, for no people in all the world can be kept eternally ignorant or eternally enslaved.

FDR at the National Education Association, New York World’s Fair Grounds, June 30, 1938, New York City.

12. The Small Town

Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man” (1914)

Dr. Springs gives a prescription to patient in Colp, Illinois (1939).

In the segregated coal-mining region of southern Illinois, Rothstein photographed respected black physician, Dr. Andrew Springs. ​In 1936, Dr. Springs invited Eleanor Roosevelt to visit the local ​mining communities. During her visit in June  she visited a coal mine and she attended a performance​ of the African-American  Colp, Illinois community choir, and later arranged to provide the group with robes and professional training.​ Under threat of violence, black residents of Colp could not remain in the neighboring “sundown towns” after dark, but this did not prevent Dr. Springs from responded to mining accidents or treating white patients. ​​

Eleanor Roosevelt, My Day column for June 17, 1936 Grayville, Ill.—Four o’clock this morning, Mrs. Helm’s faithful Mary was gently touching my arm and announcing that it was time to get up! …. I packed as much as I could last night, making allowance for the fact that I might return from the coal mine so dirty I would have to change most of the things I had on! This proved a wise precaution… We reached the Orient Mine at West Frankfort by six thirty. There is a superstition about letting women go down in a mine so I stood where the men were going to work, and watched them all load and go down. Then we went over to the new Orient Mine and as that was not working we were able to go down and see something of this mine which is said to be the largest in the world. It was certainly modern in every way, even to the landscaping around the office. I must say this country side is far less grim looking than some other mine fields I have visited.

13. Time to Play

Homemade swimming pool for steelworkers’ children, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

For entertainment we had the public library, endless talk, long walks, any number of games. We played music, sang and made love. Enormous invention went into our pleasures. Anything at all was an excuse for a party: all holidays, birthdays called for celebration. When we felt the need to celebrate and the calendar was blank, we simply proclaimed a Jacks-Are-Wild Day.

“A Primer on the ’30s,” John Steinbeck, 1960

14. The Land

Cutting hay. Windsor, Vermont (1937).

Home on the Range

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam,
And the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

The red man was pressed from this part of the West
He’s likely no more to return,
To the banks of Red River where seldom if ever
Their flickering camp-fires burn.

Where the air is so pure, the zephyrs so free,
The breezes so balmy and light,
That I would not exchange my home on the range
For all of the cities so bright.

Original c.1873 with many versions and verses to follow. This one c.1910. A favorite of President Roosevelt. Made newly popular by Bing Crosby in a 1933 recording.

Arthur Rothstein on American Diversity

Each man is an individual, and the one thing I found in traveling through the United States was that every man and every woman was different. They all come from different backgrounds and different nationalities. There was no homogeneous quality about Americans, and it was a fascinating experience to learn this…. In those days, in the thirties, to me there was a tremendous contrast, a tremendous difference in different parts of the United States. It was a fascinating thing to spend a month on a cattle ranch in Montana, for example, and see how people live there. It was a fascinating thing to spend time on a cotton plantation in the South, and see how the cultures of the people vary down there too. So I think that the one thing that did impress me at the time more than anything else was the great individualism of the American people.

Interview, 1964, Archives of American Art

15. Refugees

The New Colossus

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me;
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Excerpt. Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), 1883. In 1903 the whole poem was inscribed on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, New York City.

All of us are Americans poster p1 (1941).

All of us are Americans poster p2 (1941).

For over three centuries a steady stream of men, women and children followed the beacon of liberty which this light symbolizes, They brought to us strength and moral fibre developed in a civilization centuries old but fired anew by the dream of a better life in America…They were men and women who had the supreme courage to strike out for themselves, to abandon language and relatives, to start at the bottom without influence, without money and without knowledge of life in a very young civilization…in this land they found a home in which the things they most desired could be their – freedom of opportunity, freedom of thought, freedom to worship God. Here they found life because here there was freedom to live.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Address on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Statue of Liberty,” October 28, 1936.

16. World War II                    

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.

President Roosevelt, Annual Message to Congress, January 6, 1941

The August 1943 Quebec Conference was code-named Quadrant and discussed  the D-Day invasion (which would take place June 6, 1944) and the September 1944 conference, code named Octagon, focused on plans to advance against Germany, ending the war with Japan, and other war concerns.

Arthur Rothstein had several extraordinary photo assignments for the Army. He took this photograph of President Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the 1st Quebec Conference. This was a highly secret military strategy session in August of 1943 during which they planned the D-Day invasion of France.

Rothstein was able to get this exclusive picture at the Quebec airport. Roosevelt and Churchill had already arrived separately. When another diplomat’s plane touched down on the runway, all the photographers, except Rothstein, rushed over to see who was arriving, leaving FDR sitting on a bench, alone. Churchill came over to keep him company and he captured this intimate portrait of the two great leaders.


17. New York During the New Deal*

Government itself, whether it be that of a city or that of a sovereign State or that of the union of States, must, if it is to survive, recognize change and give to new needs reasonable and constant help. Government itself cannot close its eyes to the pollution of waters, to the erosion of soil, to the slashing of forests, any more than it can close its eyes to the need for slum clearance and schools and bridges. At a time of great human suffering the construction of this bridge was undertaken among the very first of the tens of thousands of projects launched by States and counties and municipalities and financed in part with Federal funds. You, Governor Lehman, and you, Mayor LaGuardia, are personally familiar with this great array of public improvements. You know of the other tunnels and bridges, of the sewage disposal programs, of the schoolhouse and hospital construction, of the additions and repairs to public buildings and public enterprises of every kind. …

FDR at Triborough Bridge Dedication, July 11, 1936

Bootblack, corner Fourteenth Street and Eighth Avenue, New York, New York (1937).

Between 1935 and 1941, nine public housing projects with over 11,000 apartments were built in New York City to replace tenements, provide jobs, and rehouse families in safe and sanitary dwellings. These large scale projects had community facilities for early childhood education, social activities, and health clinics. The pool at Red Hook Houses was one of eleven opened in the summer of 1936; all are still in use.

FSA Photographs in Recent Times

The documentary, aesthetic, and humane aspects of the FSA pictures continue to have wide appeal and have appeared in many recent publications. These all include photos by Arthur Rothstein which are valued for their visual acuity and the dignity with which he treated his subjects

Arthur Rothstein’s Career After the FSA

After World War II, Rothstein was Director of Photography at Look magazine from 1946-1971 and then held the same position at Parade magazine until his death in 1985. During those years, his expertise was widely recognized and he contributed chapters to technical manuals on Rolliflex and Leica cameras and wrote a widely-used textbook on photojournalism. His textbook on documentary photography included an historical overview of its development as well as technical chapters. And he oversaw the publication of several volumes of his FSA photos as well as images from the rest of his career.

Origins of the Photography Project and Early Publications  

Before sending his photographers out to the field, Roy Stryker urged them to read the relevant regional chapters in the encyclopedic North America by J. Russell Smith (1925), and to consult the detailed shooting scripts he prepared. FSA photos illustrated the state guides prepared by the Federal Writers’ Project of the New Deal. FSA photographs were provided free and so appeared in many other publications, including newspapers such as the New York Times, social science journals like the Survey Graphic, and policy studies like Sharecroppers All. All of the examples in this case feature Rothstein photos, including the cover graphic on Toward Farm Security, an FSA training manual. His and other FSA photographers also influenced the portrayal of Dust Bowl migrants in the 1940 movie based on John Steinbeck’s best-selling novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

The Resettlement Administration (RA) and the Farm Security Administration (FSA)

President Roosevelt created the Resettlement Administration—a New Deal agency dedicated to a campaign against chronic poverty—by an Executive Order on May 1, 1935. The action pulled together several existing programs and created sweeping new initiatives to provide support for rural relief and recovery efforts including loans, grants, cooperative services, medical care, and resettlement of displaced families in new communities. The RA administered projects addressing soil erosion, flood control, and provided financing for the purchase of farmlands and equipment by farmers, farm tenants, and sharecroppers. Roosevelt placed Rexford Tugwell, the Undersecretary of Agriculture, in charge of the RA and he quickly built the agency from twelve employees on May 1st, to 16,386 at the end of 1935. The President’s political foes considered the RA to be a dangerous, radical and un-American experiment in socialism. To Rexford Tugwell and friends of the agency, it was a heroic attempt to secure social justice for a neglected class of Americans and a coordinated attack on the causes of chronic rural poverty through the application of the power of knowledge and optimism. Tugwell’s controversial tenure ended in late 1936 and in 1937 the agency’s activities, including its Photo Unit headed by Roy Stryker, were absorbed into the newly created Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The 250,000+ documentary photographs produced by the RA/FSA Photo Unit, now preserved at the U.S. Library of Congress, are an enduring legacy of the agency.

John Vachon, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee and Roy Stryker (1936).

Roy Emerson Stryker was an economics instructor at Columbia University when he accepted colleague Rexford Tugwell’s offer in 1935 to direct the Resettlement Administration’s new photographic unit. Stryker had previously used documentary photographs in an agriculture textbook co-authored with Tugwell at Columbia in 1925. He believed that photographs would provide indisputable evidence that Americans needed help from their government and would help sway Congress to support the President’s New Deal agenda. Stryker’s team of photographers skillfully brought to light the conditions faced by rural families suffering from drought, displacement, and economic dislocation, but they also documented the daily life and working conditions of ordinary Americans in every part of the country. A savvy bureaucrat, Roy Stryker fought to protect the FSA Photo Unit’s funding. He remained head of the group as its functions were merged into the U.S. Office of War Information in 1943 and simultaneously arranged for the permanent preservation of the FSA photographers’ historic body of work by at U.S. Library of Congress.

RA/FSA/OWI Photographers

They were communicating. … some of them had art training. … They were trying to tell us, tell the public, make pictures that were genuine, that recognized peculiar situations whether it be a piece of geography or a human being, and recognized the pertinent things in this particular situation. They had taken the time to check certain facts or investigate, to understand why they were at that place, and what they were going to do. …We looked at [the photographs] in terms of what they had to say about this little group of people, this particular village, this particular dust area. … [The photographers] were intelligent people reporting things that they felt and saw based upon past experience, based upon a good deal of investigation. And above all else, particularly as regards the human side of this, a sincere, passionate love of people, and respect for people.

Roy Stryker

Eighteen photographers contributed to the RA/FSA/OWI files but most of the images were taken by a core group, including Marion Post Wolcott, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Carl Mydans, and Ben Shahn. The most prolific were Arthur Rothstein—the first photographer hired by Roy Stryker for the project—and Russell Lee. Perhaps the two most famous FSA photographs were taken by Rothstein, Dust Storm, Cimarron County, and Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother.

The photographers were:

Esther Bubley
John Collier Jr.
Marjory Collins
Jack Delano
Sheldon Dick
Walker Evans
Theo Jung
Dorothea Lange
Russell Lee
Howard Lieberman
Edwin Locke
Carl Mydans
Gordon Parks
Edwin Rosskam
Arthur Rothstein (contd)
Ben Shahn
John Vachon
Marion Post Wolcott

Arthur Rothstein

Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985) grew up in New York City. As an undergraduate at Columbia College he founded the University Camera Club. He earned extra money by making photocopies for Professor of Economics Roy Stryker, who was hired by the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help implement FDR’s New Deal initiatives. Stryker headed the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration (later known as the FSA, Farm Security Administration) and he hired photographers to document and publicize the widespread displacement and migration of farmers and industrial workers caused by the Great Depression. From 1935 through 1943, Arthur and the other photographers working for the FSA Photo Unit shot some of the most significant photographs ever taken of rural and small-town America. In 1940, Rothstein became a staff photographer for LOOK magazine, but soon left to rejoin the Photo Unit, which had become part of the U.S. Office of War Information in 1942. During WW II he served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. When war ended, he was in Shanghai and took a limited assignment as chief photographer in China for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Returning to the U.S. in 1946, he rejoined Look as director of photography until the magazine ceased publication in 1971. He went on to hold the same position at Parade magazine until his death in 1985.

Throughout his career, Rothstein served as a staff columnist for leading photography magazines and The New York Times. He was a faculty member at several universities and mentored a number of younger photographers including Stanley Kubrick, Charlotte Brooks, Doug Kirkland, Chester Higgins Jr, and John Shearer. He published nine books on photography including textbooks on photojournalism and documentary photography. Rothstein was the recipient of more than 35 awards in photojournalism. His photographs are in the permanent collections of museums throughout the world. At the U.S. Library of Congress more than 15,000 of his images are freely and permanently accessible to the public.

Biographical Highlights 

1915, July 17Born, New York, New York.
1935B.A., Columbia College, New York.
1935-1940Photographer, U.S. Farm Security Administration.
1940-1942Photographer, Look magazine.
1941Founder-member, American Society of Magazine Photographers.
1942-1943Photographer and picture editor, Office of War Information, Washington, DC.
1943-1946Photo officer, United States Army Signal Corps, China, Burma, and India.
1946Chief photographer, UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, China.
1946-1971Director of photography,  Look magazine.
 1956Published Photojournalism (New York: American Photographic Book Co.)
 1961-1970Adjunct faculty, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, New York.
 1963Published Creative Color in Photography (Philadelphia: Clifton Books).
 1964Pioneered three-dimensional photography, first 3-D photo to be mass-produced.
 1967Published, with William Saroyan, Look at Us (New York: Cowles Education Corporation).
 1970Published Color Photography Now  (New York: American Photographic Book Company).
 1971-1972Editor, Infinity magazine.
 1972-1985Associate editor, director of photography and consultant, Parade magazine.
 1978Published The Depression Years (New York: Dover Publications).
1979Published Arthur Rothstein: Words and Pictures (New York: Amphoto/ Billboard).
 1981Published American West in the Thirties (New York: Dover Publications).
 1984Published Arthur Rothstein’s America in Photographs, 1930-1980  (New York: Dover Publications).
 1985 Lifetime Arts Achievement award, New York Council of the Arts.
 1985, Nov. 11 Died, New Rochelle, NY.
 1986 Published posthumously Documentary Photography (Boston: Focal Press).