The Perambulating Skull

Twenty-two-year-old Arthur Rothstein took these photos while on assignment for the Resettlement Administration in South Dakota. His task was to document drought conditions there. But when the top photo was released to the media in August, 1936, coinciding with a trip by President Roosevelt to the Great Plains, it generated enormous controversy.

Republican papers, led by the Fargo Forum, argued that the photo amounted to government propaganda designed to create the appearance of drought conditions for political purposes. In reality, the Fargo Forum insisted, there had been no drought. The photo simply showed, it explained, an alkali flat, similar to ones that could be found in "Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana. Wherever one chooses." The paper also called the skull "a movable prop, which comes in handy for photographers who want to touch up their pictures with a bit of the grisly."

Subsequent investigation turned up the other pictures, revealing that Rothstein had indeed moved the skull around. Republican critics made it sound as if Rothstein had traveled the country with the steer's skull in his suitcase, but Rothstein insisted he had moved the skull no more than ten feet from where he had originally found it. Nevertheless, the controversy hung over Rothstein for the remainder of his career. Critics mockingly referred to the cow's head as the "perambulating skull."
Links and References
Curtis, J. (1989). Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered. Temple University Press.
Photo Categories: Staged Scene, Movable Prop, Landscapes, Photojournalism, Politics, 1920-1939

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