About the Work of Art:

Arthur Rothstein (1915–1985)
Farmer and Sons Walking in the Face of a Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936
Gelatin silver print
© Arthur Rothstein
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
P1980.56.3

 

Arthur Rothstein (1915–1985), Farmer and Sons Walking in the Face of a Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936, gelatin silver print, © Arthur Rothstein, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, P1980.56.3

 

 

 
All the days was about alike then. For a three-year-old kid, you just go outside and play, dust blows and sand blows, and you don’t know any different. One evening a black duster come in here from the north. We had kerosene lamps. And it got so dark you couldn’t see with kerosene lamps.
—Darrel Coble
(the boy at right in the photograph, recalling the Dust Bowl days as an adult)

The combined effects of the Great Depression and the dust bowl drought devastated the country physically, financially, and emotionally in the 1930s. The Great Depression started with a severe economic downturn in 1929 and lasted more than a decade. Frenzied speculation in the stock market, particularly by investors who borrowed money to buy stock, drove the market to unreasonably high levels. When stocks began to fall in value, panic seized investors. The huge sell-off that followed plunged the country into years of high unemployment and bank closures.

In a terrible coincidence, the dust bowl disaster began at approximately the same time as the Great Depression. Extreme weather patterns brought drought and high winds to the southern Plains, including the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, western Kansas, and eastern areas of Colorado and New Mexico. Lands were already damaged from inadequate soil conservation and over-farming. The drought and fierce winds eroded the exhausted soil and created fearsome dust storms that at times blotted out the sun.

Speaking about his photograph Dust Storm, Rothstein said:

One day, while wandering through Cimarron County, Oklahoma—the panhandle of that state—I photographed a farm and the people who lived there. The farmer and his two little boys were walking past a shed on their property, and I took a photograph of them with the dust swirling all around. I had no idea at the time that it was going to become a famous photograph, but it looked like a good picture to me and I took it. It was a picture that had a very simple kind of composition, but there was something about the swirling dust and the shed behind the farmer. . . . it showed an individual in relation to his environment.

Rothstein was working for the photography department of the federal government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA). He would later recall, “It was our job to document the problems of the Depression so that we could justify the New Deal legislation that was designed to alleviate them.”

As he photographed ordinary people going about their lives, trying to cope with adversity, Rothstein also focused on the message of the image. In this hallmark photograph, Arthur Coble and his sons, Milton and Darrel, walk past a shed on their property during a dust storm. Rather than abandon their home and move to a less hostile place, the farmer and his sons continue living with circumstance.

FSA photographs created sympathy for the plight of rural citizens through their wide distribution in newspapers and magazines. As intended, these photographs also proved how necessary the government’s assistance programs were to the survival of those hit hardest by the depression and dust bowl disasters.


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