Arthur Rothstein was born to Isadore and Nettie Perlstein Rothstein in New York City’s Harlem district on July 17, 1915. Five years later, the family moved to Edenwald, Bronx, where the basement of his childhood home was transformed into a darkroom to accommodate his early interest in photography. By his teens, Mr. Rothstein was already an accomplished photographer, with several regional exhibits to his credit by high school graduation. He majored in physics and chemistry at Columbia University, and founded its Camera Club in 1935, scoring a major coup by persuading Edward Steichen to appear as a guest lecturer. The industrious young man covered his tuition during the Great Depression by photographing student theses. In his senior year, Mr. Rothstein was introduced to Columbia economic professor Roy Stryker, who along with another staff professor, Rexford G. Tugwell, founded the Federal Resettlement Administration as a New Deal project for President Franklin Roosevelt, designed to chronicle the economic impact of the Depression upon American agriculture. Later renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Mr. Rothstein was recruited to join an elite group of photographers that included, among others, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Ben Shahn.
Mr. Rothstein embraced his role as photographic documentarian, and during a 1935 assignment in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, he immersed himself in the local culture while studying the techniques of his more experienced colleagues. As he later recalled, “[T]hey had very definite approaches; and it was not just a question of making a picture, but making a picture that had meaning. They made me very much aware of the elements that go into photography—that go beyond just the content of the picture—the elements of style, of individual approach, of being able to see clearly, being able to visualize ideas.” During his five-year tenure with the FSA, Mr. Rothstein learned how to make the most powerful use of his available or existing light with the help of his Leica 33mm camera. He later joined other photojournalists in switching to the faster 35mm camera, later switching to the more portable Olympus Pen EE series with a 28mm f/1.9 lens and an exposure meter, which allowed him to produce 18x24mm negatives. Mr. Rothstein always preferred available light over flashbulbs, believing it produced more powerful results. He also traveled with a narrow tripod (those manufactured by Quickset and Linhof were his favorites), that he believed steadied the telephoto lenses that reacted to any type of vibration. His 1936 photograph, “Skull, Bad Lands, South Dakota,” sparked considerable controversy when his creative approach to composition led to charges that the New Deal was using fakery and propaganda to overdramatize the effects of the Great Depression.
After completing his tenure with the FSA in 1940, Mr. Rothstein became a staff photographer of Look magazine and also took photographs for New York’s newly formed Office of War. He accompanied the U.S. Army throughout Asia. Two years after World War II ended, he married Grace Goodman, with whom he would have four children. He was director of photography at Look until 1971, after which he founded the American Society of Magazine Photographers (now known as the American Society of Media Photographers), and joined the staff of Parade magazine, where he remained until 1985. Seventy-year-old Arthur Rothstein died in New Rochelle, New York, on November 11, 1985. Several of Mr. Rothstein’s award-winning photographs can be found in more than 90 establishments, including the George Eastman House’s International Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Library of Congress’s Rothstein Collection and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC; and the Royal Photographic Society of London.
2018 African-American Family at Gee's Bend, Alabama (URL: https://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/284663).
2006 Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 1358-1360.
2018 Perceiving Photographic Truth (URL: http://www.photovisionmagazine.com/articles/iopv2n6.html).
1963 Popular Science, Vol. CLXXXII (New York: Popular Science Publishing Co., Inc.), pp. 102-105, 196
2018 South Dakota Badlands, United States 1936 (URL: http://www.alteredimagesbdc.org/rothstien).
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