1915 – 1985
Arthur Rothstein grew up in New York City. He had been a student at Columbia University when he met Roy Stryker, an academic who was hired by the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to manage the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration. The Historical Section was created to use photography to document and publicize the large-scale economic dislocations caused by the Great Depression and the widespread displacement and disruption of agricultural communities during Dust Bowl of the 1930s, as well as the government programs designed to assist the displaced. It was subsequently known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography project.
Stryker initially hired Arthur to design and construct the darkroom for the project in Washington, D.C., and he was sent into the field as a photojournalist the following year, 1935, when he was twenty years old. For more than five years he and other FSA photographers traveled the country on assignment for the U.S. government, documenting the plight of displaced farmers, workers, their families and their communities. Today, the public archive of FSA photographs maintained by the Library of Congress contains more than 11,000 photographs taken by Arthur Rothstein.
As the country began to mobilize for World War II, the FSA photography project was transformed into the Office of War Information (OWI). Rothstein left the OWI and had just started working for Look magazine when the United States entered World War II. During the war he covered Europe, India and Burma as a Signal Corps photographer. Rothstein then documented the day-to-day lives of displaced persons (Holocaust survivors) struggling to subsist in the Shanghai Hongkew ghetto, as well as the consequences of the Great Famine in China as Chief Photographer for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in 1946 and 1947.
He returned to the U.S. and Look magazine, where he served as Director of Photography until its demise in 1971. When Look folded Arthur became Director of Photography at Parade Magazine and spent more time writing and teaching photojournalism and documentary photography until his death in 1985. Throughout his career Rothstein was also an innovator. For example, he was instrumental in the invention of the Xograph, which was the first printing process that enabled mass reproduction of a photograph that appeared, to the unaided eye, to be three-dimensional.
The common thread throughout Arthur’s career, beyond the promotion of technical innovation, was his passion for the use and perpetuation of photojournalism and documentary photography toward the betterment of society. During the 1930s and 1940s he had been an active member of the Photo League, which was dedicated to the use of documentary photography to effect social change.
He loved to share his craft. He loved to mentor young photographers. He authored columns in photography magazines, and produced nine books on photography. Arthur Rothstein, died in 1985 leaving a magnificent historical legacy. His photographs, and those of many of the photographers he mentored, continue to be printed in the media and hung in museums.