A man and two boys rush into a decrepit shack during a dust storm
Arthur Rothstein's "Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma (1936)

‘When Government Worked’: photographing the New Deal

Arthur Rothstein knew how to find the heart of a story. The son of Jewish immigrants, the late, great photographer used his lens to focus on the human element, both in the U.S. during his Depression-era New Deal work and abroad during World War II and highlighting the plight of refugees.

“Dad’s own family immigration example really shaped his life and his work,” said Rothstein’s daughter Annie Segan. Rothstein died in 1985. “He was always drawn to stories of the dispossessed.”

Now his photos are coming to San Francisco for an exhibit at the Canessa Gallery. “When Government Worked: New Deal Picture Stories by Arthur Rothstein” will begin with an introductory talk by Segan at the opening reception Dec. 7. The exhibit runs through Dec. 27.

“My dad was all about showing how government could help people,” Segan said of the man whose career spanned five decades and who is remembered in many circles as one of America’s finest photojournalists.

Photographer Arthur Rothstein with his children, 1957 (Photo/Grace Rothstein)
Photographer Arthur Rothstein with his children, 1957 (Photo/Grace Rothstein)

Born in 1915 and raised in the Bronx, Rothstein, a graduate of Columbia University, was hired as the very first photographer for a pioneering New Deal program intended to show how public relief programs could help people. It was also a way to let people outside the stricken areas of the Dust Bowl know just how serious the crisis was.

“People were starving before they would get assistance,” Segan said. “There were so many people starving, though!”

Working for the Farm Security Administration, which was created in the mid-1930s, Rothstein spent five years driving through the vast empty spaces of what had once been the country’s breadbasket. In shot after shot of desperate farmers and displaced workers, Rothstein captured the scope of the environmental and humanitarian crisis, as well as how the government was stepping in with large-scale public works that offered jobs and security.

“These pictures show how government came to the aid of everybody,” Segan said.

Then came World War II. Rothstein became a combat photographer, and at the end of the war found himself in China, where he got a job taking photos for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration; his portfolio includes shots of some of the 20,000 or so Jewish refugees who ended up in Shanghai after fleeing the Holocaust.

“He figured by telling their story he could help these people,” Segan said.

After the war, Rothstein became director of photography two magazines, Look and then Parade. Segan has spent the last few years dedicated to promoting her father’s legacy through talks and exhibits, but also by making sure that places that use his iconic images give him credit.

“Whenever I hear of anything, I’m very kind,” she said. “I don’t charge anything. I just want his name.”

In spring of 2018, Segan opened a show of Rothstein’s Shanghai photos at a gallery in Florida. The San Francisco exhibit is co-sponsored by the Living New Deal, a UC Berkeley-based project to map areas in California and beyond that were transformed by Works Progress Administration projects.

The exhibit’s three-hour opening reception will begin with Segan talking about her father’s life and works, as well as the legacy and impact his New Deal photography.

“I kvell when I do this stuff,” she said. “I’m so excited.”

“When Government Worked: New Deal Picture Stories by Arthur Rothstein.” Opening reception 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7. Exhibit through Dec. 27 at Canessa Gallery, 708 Montgomery St., S.F. Free. canessa.org

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.