jump to navigation

Arthur Rothstein’s amazing photograph May 1, 2011

Posted by Jenny in history, literature, nature.
Tags: , , , , ,

A farmer and his two sons during a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936. Photo by Arthur Rothstein.

In 1936, during the period of the Dust Bowl, Franklin Roosevelt was running for a second term. While many Americans were grateful for the programs of the New Deal, some of the programs were coming under attack. It wasn’t clear whether the subsidies and resettlement plans and new agricultural practices aimed at solving the Dust Bowl problem would be successful: the drought and the dust storms had been dragging on for six long years. A man named Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration came up with the idea of sending photographers out to take pictures of the devastation: it might help to convince the public that the government programs were necessary—and it might help get Roosevelt reelected.

A 21-year-old guy named Arthur Rothstein, just out of college and living in New York, was one of the photographers that Stryker sent out. In Oklahoma, Rothstein was driving down the highway when he spotted a pathetic shack. Arthur Coble and his two young sons were digging out fence posts and carrying water to a couple of cattle that were dying from lack of food and breathing in too much dust. When Rothstein got out to take a picture, a sudden gust of wind kicked up the dust, and the Cobles went hurrying for shelter in their shack. Rothstein clicked the shutter and captured an image that was to become the most famous photograph of the whole period.

The subject and the composition have come together seamlessly. The profile of Arthur Coble, his head bowed against the dust—the hat somehow suggesting a feeling of adult responsibility—is lined up perfectly with the edge of the shack. His legs and the legs of the closer son are moving in parallel. The younger son seems barely distinguishable from the half-buried fence posts, continuing a line that starts with the roof of the shack. The horizon is nearly erased by the dust. The shack is being consumed by it. The helplessness of Arthur as a parent, his obvious inability to truly protect his children from the hellish elements, comes at us strongly. It haunts us.

How did Rothstein manage to get such an incredible photograph in the haste of the moment? The photo simply couldn’t have turned out any better. Some powerful instinct must have guided him.

My information about the circumstances of the photo comes from a marvellous book titled The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Read it.

Around noon on January 21, 1932, a cloud ten thousand feet high from ground to top appeared just outside Amarillo. The winds had been fierce all day, clocked at sixty miles an hour when the curtain dropped over the Panhandle. The sky lost its customary white, and it turned brownish then gray as the thing lumbered around the edge of Amarillo, a city of 43,000 people. Nobody knew what to call it. It was not a rain cloud. Nor was it a cloud holding ice pellets. It was not a twister. It was thick like coarse animal hair; it was alive. People close to it described a feeling of being in a blizzard—a black blizzard, they called itwith an edge like steel wool.”

Storm approaching Spearman, Texas