Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


On the Southern and Central Great Plains, the Great Depression of the 1930s was compounded by the Dust Bowl, a combination that put great stress on the people of the region as well as the federal government, which sought to alleviate their suffering. Working under Roy Stryker, primarily under the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a small group of talented photographers, including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, John Vachon, Russell Lee, and Arthur Rothstein, documented the human, natural, and economic devastation of the region in photographs printed in federal publications as well as in a wide variety of newspapers and magazines. Stryker explicitly directed his photographers to document the tragedy and also show the need for and effectiveness of expensive, agriculturally oriented government relief programs.

The most important Dust Bowl photographer, both in terms of technical ability and time spent in the region, was Arthur Rothstein. Rothstein joined the project in 1935, immediately following his graduation from Columbia University. He traveled the Plains from 1936 to 1940. Rothstein's early role and technical abilities gave him considerable influence on the artistic direction of the federal program. He was deeply influenced by the 1936 documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains and adopted its visual perspective and persuasive intent. His works were gritty, taking advantage of the ability of black-and-white film to capture the contrast between light and dark. His realistic style, seemingly documentary, was chosen to enhance the believability of his work.

Under Stryker and Rothstein, government photographers stressed images of poverty and destruction from 1935 to 1937. Russell Lee worked in Texas and Oklahoma, although he concentrated on the Northern Great Plains. His 1939 series, Part of Mays Avenue Camp, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, reveals that even late in the Depression poverty continued to plague the region.

The work of government photographers was sometimes controversial, which is hardly surprising, given the persuasive intent of the assignment. Arthur Rothstein's work proved to be the most controversial. Rothstein was involved in a political controversy during the 1936 presidential election when the conservative Fargo Forum criticized him (and, by extension, the Roosevelt administration) for his repeated use of a cow skull to dramatize the bleakness of the Plains. The story spread. Many newspapers later retracted the story, following Stryker's justification of the skull's artistic use, but the reputation of the government photographers suffered. Rothstein's most famous image, Farmer and Sons Walking in the Face of a Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma (1936), showing a farmer and his two young sons leaning into the wind as dust swallows their outbuildings, has also proven controversial. Other images taken on the same day but with clear skies and an apparent absence of dust belie Rothstein's claim that he took the photograph without staging.

While most of the Dust Bowl photographers worked for the federal government, others worked for private publications. Dorothea Lange worked sporadically for the federal government, but only a small portion of her work covers the region. Among these, produced independently of federal efforts, was An American Exodus (1939), which includes bleak scenes of life in the Southern Plains that explain why people would travel great distances to California to live in camps and work in such miserable conditions. Margaret Bourke-White, also considered to be a major Dust Bowl photographer, worked for Fortune, which commissioned her to photograph the Deep South. Her most famous photographs, included in You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), were taken in the American South but have often been perceived as being set in the Dust Bowl.

Just as the Dust Bowl passed, so too did the need to justify government programs or document rural suffering in the region. After 1937 emphasis shifted to the more positive effects of government relief efforts, with fewer scenes of economic and environmental distress.

See also AGRICULTURE: Farm Security Administration / FILM: The Plow That Broke the Plains / PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT: Dust Bowl.

Charles Vollan University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Curtis, James. Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Fleischhauer, Carl, and Beverly W. Brannon, eds. Documenting America, 1935–1943. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

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