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Steer Skull, Badlands, SD
Gelatin silver print
12 5/8 x 10 5/16 ins
George Eastman Museum
This photograph created a political stir at the time as the skull was moved by the photographer to create what he considered to be a stronger visual image.
In an oral history interview with Arthur Rothstein by Richard Doud (25 May 1964) for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution the following comment was made.
Well, I found myself in South Dakota on cracked earth where there was a skull, and I made a lot of photographic exercises using the skull-the texture of the skull, the texture of the earth, the cracks in the soil, the lighting, how the lighting changed from the east to the west as the sun went down. I spent a good part of the day taking pictures of it, near a piece of cactus, on grass-you know-and experimenting with it. I sent all these pictures in to Washington. I was on this long trip, which took many months out through the West. Roy was always permitting picture editors from the Associated Press and other agencies to go through the file and if they saw anything they liked, they were to take it and print it. Unknown to me, and perhaps even unknown to Roy, this picture editor, Max Hill with Associated Press (he dies quite some time ago) extracted the photograph. Since he knew nothing about the West, to him this was a symbol of the drought. The fact is that it had been made in May and the fact that these arroyos are to be found even to this day in any part of the West, and the fact that you can find skulls of steers and cows and jackrabbits and rabbits, and so forth, all over the plains meant nothing to him. He just liked this picture probably because I lavished so much photographic artistry on it, you see. And so he sent it out as an example of the drought. This was months later, months after I'd made the picture. The drought was becoming serious around June and July. Well, there, too, nothing would have happened probably if the editor of the Fargo Forum had not picked up this picture, serviced by the Associated Press, Fargo Forum was a member of the Associated Press, and said, "Now this is a real example of fakery." As far as he was concerned, it was a fake photograph. He didn't know that I had made the picture in May and that the picture had a caption on it that I hadn't contributed, that it was sent out by the Associated Press, not by the government! He didn't know any of these things. As far as he was concerned, here was a government picture that was a fake. Propaganda. And of course the Forum was, like most newspapers of the time, opposed to the Democratic Party and to the New Deal. He wrote a big front-page editorial, just as Roosevelt was coming through Bismark, North Dakota, and printed a special edition of the Fargo Forum with this picture on the front page and called it a fake-New Deal Propaganda-there was a lot of talk about that in those days-and put this on the train for all the correspondents to read. It just happened that I was in Bismark, North Dakota, at the time this came through. One of the correspondents asked me if I had made this picture and I agreed that I had. So he immediately sent a message back to Washington and got somebody to start digging through the files. They found a lot of other pictures that I had made, and this of course became a great joke. Cartoonists drew pictures of me wandering all over the United States with a skull, planting it here and planting it there, but the fact is that this was the farthest thing from my mind. I had not taken the picture in the first place as an example of New Deal propaganda; I had taken a picture of something that existed, and may even exist today. I had not taken the picture with the idea of it being used as a symbol of the drought, although it did show the drought, I mean it was dried earth and a skull. And this thing snowballed to the point there were columns written about it, stories in Time Magazine, and Westbrook Pegler wrote a humorous little satirical piece; some people came to the defense of this picture and other people attacked it. Meantime I evaded everybody and went off for a vacation in Minnesota.
Interviewee: Roy Stryker (Head of the FSA Photographic Unit)
Interviewer: Richard Doud
Date: October 17, 1963; June 13, 1964; January 23, 1965
Oral history interview with Roy Emerson Stryker, 1963-1965, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Roy Stryker: That wasn't exactly controversial. There's not too much to say. Rothstein had moved to his --from --over to --and cactuses and sparse vegetation. It wasn't dishonesty at all because it was complete honesty. It was a political situation. Newspapers picked it up because we were then going over into a political controversy. Which is a perfectly legitimate, worth-while thing. Thank God that's what democracy is -- a difference of opinion. The result was, there was a stampede, everybody take up the thing and damn us for it. I don't think they even looked carefully. In the end, I think they made something more out of it; it wasn't that important.
Richard Doud: By itself it was a terrific picture.
Roy Stryker: No. Not a terrific picture. An interesting picture but it wasn't a terrific picture. I don't think it began to even come anywhere near the pictures we had the following -- I don't think -- I think they made a great picture out of it because they made all this fuss. I don't think it was a great picture.
Richard Doud: You could call it infamous rather than famous?
Roy Stryker: No, I just think they made it a well known picture, let's put it that way. I shouldn't use the word "famous." I just think they made it a very well known picture. I don't think it would ever have had that importance if they hadn't given it a flurry all through the papers because they wanted to raise hell with the Administration's being dishonest. Of course it was dishonest. Maybe what I said, I said it -- didn't realize I'd said it but I guess I did say it. Well, there was a drought, and the hell with it! And I've been quoted on that. I wasn't very smart to have said it that way, but I did, and I said it, and it's out now. There was a drought. Sure he was na´ve. Sure he was out of the city; he was moving around; he was almost composing. It were better left alone. We'd have been smarter if we hadn't let those pictures get out. It didn't hurt.