Throughout the spring of 1936, twenty-one-year old Arthur Rothstein worked his way through the plains states as a photographer for the Resettlement Administration (RA), a federal agency created by Roosevelt's New Deal to alleviate the worst of rural poverty. In South Dakota's Badlands, Rothstein came across a cracked, bleached cow's skull and photographed it five times, experimenting with background, light and shadow in each of the exposures (Fig. 1-2). When he sent the negatives back to Washington to be printed his boss at the RA, Roy Stryker, wrote approvingly of the stark images: "Your last set of pictures which included Pennington County, South Dakota [...] were most excellent" (Roy Stryker Papers, 20 June 1936). Soon Rothstein's skull pictures, and others he had taken of drought-stricken areas in the plains states, were appearing in newspapers and magazines across the country. Edwin Locke, head of public relations for the RA, wrote to Rothstein in July that "the pictures which you made in the drought ar ea are front page news by this time. [...] Resettlement is all over the picture pages" (Roy Stryker Papers, 7 July 1936).
At the end of the summer the Fargo (N. D.) Forum, a staunchly Republican newspaper, published one of Rothstein's skull photographs under the headline, "It's a fake!" The article argued that photographers and journalists were using manipulative methods to make Americans think the drought in the Dakotas was worse than it was. The Forum warned journalists not to "fall foul of funny facts and figures," but instead to pay attention to the people who "live here." The article went on to claim that the skull photograph was a "gem among phony pictures," a "movable 'prop' which comes in handy for photographers who want to touch up their pictures with a bit of the grisly" ("It's a Fake" 1). The invective included a suggestion for journalists visiting the area: "Listen, Mr. Easterner! [...] May we suggest in all friendliness, that while you are in these parts, you take no wooden nickel pictures like this?" (1). The controversy that resulted from the publication of the Forum article, which came to be known as the "skull controversy," nearly put an end to the RA's photography project and called into question photographs made by other government photographers.
Recently scholars in argumentation studies have explored the question of how visual images function as arguments. Some of this work attempts to lay out the necessary elements for a viable theory of visual argument (Birdsell and Groarke; Blair; Groarke). Others choose instead to focus upon concrete cases and identify distinct types of visual arguments and the particular communicative functions they perform. Cameron Shelley identifies two types of visual argument in images depicting human evolution, "demonstrative" and "rhetorical." Gretchen S. Barbatsis notes the argumentative functions of "pictorial engagement" in negative campaign advertising. And Margaret R. LaWare explores how Chicano murals use culturally-accepted symbols to make visual arguments about ethnic pride and community identity.
Both the recent theoretical work on visual argument and the growing collection of case studies are firmly grounded in the belief that scholars of argument need to come to terms with the multiplicity of ways in which visual images participate in argumentation. They support this assertion by noting that visual images are ubiquitous in our everyday lives, that they constitute a particularly powerful form of public discourse, and that we have not done enough thinking about the "visual elements within everyday examples of argument" (Groarke 105-106). This inquiry is important not only because the study of visual argument may enrich our understanding of argument, but also because it has potential to enrich our understanding of fundamental questions in visual and media studies: How do images embody codes of power, domination, spectatorship, or surveillance? …