ARTHUR ROTHSTEIN: FSA, OWI AND BEYOND

 

Farmer and sons in dust storm, Oklahoma, 1936.

Farmer and sons, Oklahoma, 1936

by Arthur Rothstein. (LOC)

Article by Bruce Berman

Arthur Rotstein was one of the first photographers hired by the FSA (Farm Security Administration) in 1936, although his first job there was not to shoot but to create a darkroom for the newly formed Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration (RA). Rothstein was the first photographer sent out by Roy Stryker, the visionary behind the FSA photo section and an  economist-turned-editor who headed the Photo Unit. Rothstein had been a student of Stryker’s at Colombia University where Stryker taught and worked with his colleague Rex Tugwell who later helped form the Resettlement Administration and was an insider in FDR’s New Deal planning. During the next five years he was one of the main photographers for the unit along with Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Walker Evans, Beh Shahn, Jack Delano and others. His photographs of rural and small-town America are memorable and form -along with the other FSA shooters work- a capsule snapshot of America in mid-Depression, an America somewhat innocent and bruised, and an America that was struggling to recover from the devastating ecological and financial disaster that began in 1929. Rothstein’s photographs showed, over the next two years, an America that was mostly agrarian and was, unbeknownst to itself, heading for a major industrial era spurred on by the build up of industry related to the coming war.

Rothstein left the FSA in 1940 and became a staff photographer for Look magazine. When the war came he joined the OWI (Office of War Information) and then joined the US Army as a photographer in the Signal Corps.

During the war, Rothstein worked in the China-Burma-India theatre. After his discharge in 1945, he remained in China, working as chief photographer for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, documenting the Great Famine and the plight of displaced survivors of the Holocaust in the Hongkew ghetto of Shanghai.

In 1947 Rothstein rejoined Look as Director of Photography. He remained at Look until 1971 when the magazine ceased publication.

Arthur Rothstein was a pillar of the professional photographic community for several decades after his FSA/OWI/Army years. He was a  recipient of more than 35 awards in photojournalism and a former juror for the Pulitzer Prize, and was also a founder and former officer of the American Society of Magazine Photographers (ASMP). and organization that promotes professionalism in the industry and is one of the first organizations to fight for photographer’s legal and financial rights. A November 17, 1985 New York Times obituary noted that Arthur Rothstein “…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 died on November 11, 1985 in New Rochelle, New York.

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