Same People, Same Time, Same Place: Contrasting Images of Destitute Ozark Mountaineers during the Great Depression

By Watkins, Patsy G. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Autumn 2011 | Go to article overview

Same People, Same Time, Same Place: Contrasting Images of Destitute Ozark Mountaineers during the Great Depression


Watkins, Patsy G., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


IN AUGUST 1935, ARTHUR ROTHSTEIN traveled through the hills of north central and northwestern Arkansas taking pictures of rural poverty for the federal Resettlement Administration (RA) - later the Farm Security Administration (FSA).1 Among his better-known images is "Wife and child of a sharecropper, Washington County" (Figure 1; all photos discussed here are assembled at the end of the article). It is a candid photo of a woman and young child standing in the darkened doorway of the family's cabin. The woman's attention is directed to someone out of the frame, and she seems completely unaware of the photographer.

The Library of Congress archive of FSA photos includes approximately 120 photos taken by Rothstein and Ben Shahn in the Arkansas Ozarks in the late summer and fall of 1935. A number of these photos are among the most familiar of the FSA collection of thousands of images taken by several dozen photographers.2

What Rothstein and Shahn likely did not know, however, is that there was another photographer in the same area that year, also taking pictures of destitute Ozark farmers. It was most likely Ernest Nicholson, a county rehabilitation caseworker based in Boone County, Arkansas, who took nearly 100 photographs of relief clients in 1935 showing their families and living conditions. An example is "A Client's New Home" (Figure 2), which, like Rothstein's picture, is of a woman with her children. As in the Rothstein picture, the woman and children look impoverished; their clothing is shabby and their house a roughly built shelter of mismatched boards, propped up on a section of a log. These photos are held at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale, Arkansas, in the Katy McCoy Collection. They are snapshot-size pictures originally mounted in an album along with extensive captions. As such, they are remarkable historical documents of the lives of the poorest Arkansans in Boone and Newton Counties during the Great Depression. But they offer some striking contrasts to the more familiar RA/ FSA images. Ernest Nicholson could not have been more different from Rothstein and Shahn, though he photographed essentially the same subjects they did - destitute Arkansas farmers and their living conditions.

The RA/FSA photos have become our standard for visualizing extreme rural poverty in the 1930s. Under the direction of Roy Stryker from 1935 to 1943, the project established a certain documentary aesthetic to serve the purposes of the Resettlement Administration and other federal relief programs.3 Since the 1960s and 1970s, the photos have been intensely studied and analyzed. Though they were not as widely published in the 1930s as may be assumed, even then their superior aesthetic quality was recognized by contemporaries such as Edward Steichen, who described them in 1939 as "the most remarkable human documents that were ever rendered in pictures." They have now, after decades, achieved iconic status, according to some scholars. But, others have described the photos as "propaganda," ideological expressions of a political agenda promulgated by the federal government.4

In 1935, however, the RA/FSA photography project was just beginning, and was no doubt little known in Arkansas. That its photographers and a local relief caseworker should be taking pictures of the same population in the same region during the same year is a remarkable coincidence that creates a rich visual record of that time and place.

In studying historical photographs, cultural historian Alan Trachtenberg cautioned against the tendency to "see what one wants to see" in such photos, without careful consideration of factors such as the photographers' purpose and an understanding of photographic language.5 The RA/FSA and Nicholson sets of photos present a unique opportunity to explore their shared content but also the differences in their presentation ofthat content. The purpose of this article is to go beyond seeing only what is apparent in two sets of photographs of Depressionera Arkansas to what is revealed by examining their "photographic meanings. …

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