The first of a seven-part series.
Republican editors throughout the land were soon rubbing their hands over a dispatch which, on quick reading, seemed to convict the New Deal’s cherished resettlement Administration of photographic fakery and bad faith.
— Time Magazine
Summer of 1936. One of the worst droughts in American history. On June 7, North Dakota’s Republican governor, Walter Welford, proclaimed a day of prayer. The citizens of North Dakota would kneel en masse to pray for rain. “Only Providence,” the governor declared, could avert “another tragedy of tremendous proportions.” Devil’s Lake, N.D., recorded .16 of an inch.
The drought continued.
On June 21, Gov. Welford flew to Washington to ask President Roosevelt for aid. On June 23, Roosevelt ordered Dr. Tugwell, head of the Resettlement Administration, to make a survey of the needs in Dakotas and Montana. A million dollars in aid had been requested.
Within a week, a heat wave spread across the Western plains. Newspapers reported it was 111 degrees in North Dakota. By July 7, it was a record 119 degrees in parts of the state. Fields were scorched brown and black. The range country seemed to be covered with a tan moss so close to the ground that the hungry cattle could not reach it; so dry was the covering that it was useless for sheep. It was estimated that 85 percent of the cattle in North Dakota would have to be moved out of state or sent to slaughter. The federal government stepped forward with $5 million to buy a million head of cattle — with the meat to go to the needy.
Grasshoppers descended on the region, their vast numbers consuming what little crops remained. By July 9, heat had killed 120 across the country.
On July 11, the people of Mitchell, S.D., turned once more to prayer. Bells in the city’s 13 church towers tolled the signal to the people, 11,000 in number, to fall to their knees. The temperature stood at 104 degrees. Still the rain did not come.
On July 17, Washington responded to the worsening situation with a vast migration plan. Thousands of families would be moved by the federal government — about 30 percent of the farm families of North Dakota would be taken off their barren land. The grasshoppers marched on.
By August, small cactus plants were the only living vegetation over large areas along the Dakota-Montana line. The grasshoppers were gone now, killed by the intense heat or starved to death. They had been replaced by an infestation of rodents driven into homes in search of food. By Aug. 9 supplies of traps in North Dakota were exhausted. Home owners anxiously awaited new shipments to relieve the situation.
The land was turning to desert and dust. It felt like the end of the world.
On Aug. 25, Franklin Delano Roosevelt boarded a train for the Dakotas.
It was the 1936 presidential election. The issues would be familiar to today’s voters. Roosevelt, the eastern Democrat, arguing for the intervention of government in the economy, and Alf Landon, the midwestern Republican, arguing for a laissez-faire approach free of government controls and intervention. Roosevelt, campaigning for a second term, was on a train (“the Dustbowl Special”) headed towards the Dakota badlands. Everything was in place for a series of photo opportunities and news stories that would cast his efforts to fight the drought in the best possible light. But, unknown to F.D.R., a controversy was brewing, a controversy involving photography. Time magazine observed:
…when Franklin Roosevelt’s special train rolled into Bismarck, N. Dakota in the course of its travels through the drought areas it also rolled into a story which brought nationwide attention to a small-town newspaper. Aboard the Presidential Pullmans were placed scores of copies of the Fargo (N. Dakota) Forum, whose front page displayed a strange yarn. Because a corps of the nation’s nimblest news hawks were also on the train, Republican editors throughout the land were soon rubbing their hands over a dispatch which, on quick reading, seemed to convict the New Deal’s cherished resettlement Administration of photographic fakery and bad faith.
In 1935, Roosevelt organized the Resettlement Administration (R.A.), a federal agency responsible for relocating struggling urban and rural families. By 1937 (because of intense Congressional pressure) it had been folded into a new agency, the Farm Security Administration (F.S.A.) designed to combat rural poverty. If this was all there was to it, the R.A. and F.S.A. might have been forgotten by history . But there was a small photography program, part of the Information Division of the F.S.A., headed by Roy Stryker, that nurtured many of the important photographers of the 1930s: Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn and Arthur Rothstein, among others. It also produced Pare Lorentz’s extraordinary documentary films “The Plow that Broke the Plains” and “The River” .
If one can imagine the political animosity that would have been generated if, as part of the current stimulus package, President Obama introduced a national documentary photography program, then it is possible to understand the opposition that the F.S.A. faced. Fiscal conservatives did not want to see their hard-earned tax dollars spent on relief, let alone a government photography program, of all things. And in Arthur Rothstein’s photograph of a sun-bleached cow skull, Roosevelt’s opponents had found their proof of government waste, duplicity and fraud. A salvo was fired across the front pages of the Fargo Forum.
“Drought Counterfeiters Get Our Dander Up” and “It’s a Fake: Daily Newspapers Throughout the United States Fell For this Gem Among Phony Pictures.” The paper referred to “the man with the wooden-nickel pictures” and contained three claimed examples of photo-fakery: Arthur Rothstein’s cow skull photograph (taken for the Resettlement Administration Farm Security Administration — later known as the Farm Security Administration, or F.S.A. — and distributed by the government to the Associated Press); a composite photograph of cattle grazing next to the North Dakota state capitol (printed in The New York Times); and a picture supposedly of a section of the Missouri River near Stanton, N.D. (widely distributed by the Associated Press).
Three different photographs. Three accusations of photo-fakery. Of the three, only one appeared to be an out-and-out fraud, the picture of the cattle and capitol. It appeared in The New York Times on Sunday, Aug. 9, 1936, with the caption: “Cattle Invade a State Capitol. A herd driven from the drought area contentedly grazes on the Capitol grounds at Bismarck, N. D.” As the Forum reported:
If these cows could only read. You’d think they’d been eating loco weed. Where those cows are presumably grazing is a graveled parking lot at the rear of the state capitol, thickly dotted with cars at all hours of the day. The picture fake, foisted on innocent, unsuspecting newspapers, is the result of a photographic trick — superimposing a herd of cattle on a picture of the North Dakota capitol building.
The picture of the Missouri River was at best miscaptioned:
Blushingly, The Fargo Forum admits that it too fell for this photographic gold brick, a blatant, crude fake, which went out to the unsuspecting Associated Press from a too-smart photographer who wanted nickels [presumably, a somewhat obscure reference to “wooden-nickel pictures]. To the right is the faked picture, purportedly showing a section of the Missouri river near Stanton, N.D., purportedly showing the water receded sufficiently to permit automobiles to ford the stream without difficulty. Above is the actual, honest picture of the Missouri river at Stanton N.D., as it was at the time the faked picture purportedly was taken. The contraption in the foreground is a ferry which has been in operation 20 years, missing trips only because of the wind or ice, never because of low water. The river is about 16 feet deep at a point about 50 feet from shore.
But it was a photograph of a cow skull taken by a young photographer, Arthur Rothstein, that brought out the real nastiness.
There never was a year when a scene like this couldn’t be produced in N. Dakota, even in years where rainfall levels were far above normal. What we see here is a typical alkali flat, left when melting snow water and spring rains had passed in the changing seasons. Without difficulty, one can find these in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana, wherever one chooses. The skull? Oh, that’s a moveable “prop,” which comes in handy for photographers who want to touch up their photographs with a bit of the grisly.
The “moveable prop,” the cow skull, could be transported about by an unscrupulous Roosevelt administration propagandist, deposited on a “typical alkali flat,” photographed, and sold to anyone who needed a picture of drought. Part of the problem was the cow skull photograph had been takenbefore the summer months of the drought — in May 1936 . And the Farm Security Administration (F.S.A.) had provided several “versions” of the photograph. The same cow skull had been photographed in different locations, as if the photographer was looking for the perfect landscape to make his case. The Fargo Forum was further incensed by the idea that North Dakota farmers had been badly served by the cow skull. Several articles offer a spirited defense of North Dakota farmers and spoke of the extraordinary agricultural “wealth” produced in the Red River Valley.
By September, accusations of fraud were all over the place. There were dozens of articles about supposed photo-fraud and the cow skull.
Aug. 29, The New York Sun, “Drought Photo Branded Fake.”
Aug. 30, The Washington Star, “Drought Skull Picture Faking Head Admitted by the New Deal.”
Aug. 31, The Fargo Evening Forum, “Eastern Press Follows Forum’s Lead, Unearths History of this Fake Photo.”
Sept. 4, The Fargo Evening Forum, “RA’s Perambulating Skull in Poignant Poses.”
Sept. 5, The Topeka Kansas Capitol, “There’s Skullduggery here.”
Sept. 6, Waterbury Republican, “Lights! Camera!”
Sept. 15, The Burlington Iowa Hawkeye, “Fakery – Then Bad Faith.”
Sept. 16, Chicago News, “That Stage-prop Skull.”
The conflict produced an almost endless array of accusations, retractions and counter-accusations — a roundelay of finger-pointing. Buried on a back page on Sept. 6, The Times published a correction regarding the alleged composite photograph of cattle grazing in front of the state capitol building: “a North Dakota newspaper has publicly retracted its charges that a WPA photographer “faked” a drought picture in Bismarck…” The cattle were in front of the North Dakota capitol; the photograph had not been faked. One picture had not been combined with another. The report of the fake had been a fake. And yet, once the faked photograph had been re-baptized as an “honest” photo, the claims against it started all over again. On Sept. 9, The Times published an article, “[The Fargo Forum] Denies Retracting WPA ‘Fake’ Charge, Paper Again Attacks Drought Picture, saying Cattle Have Always Grazed at Capitol.”
The Fargo Forum has not retracted the charge that the cattle picture was a drought fake. “It was a drought fake and is a drought fake.” The newspaper then relates the history of the picture, which it at first believed to be the result of superimposing one shot on another, then discovered it to be an actual shot of dairy cattle owned by a Bismarck dairyman which frequently meander through the Capitol grounds. The Capitol is bordered on three sides by open farming and ranch land. Watchman for years have had the job of chasing wandering cows away from the building. “The Fargo Forum was wrong when it said that the cattle picture was the result of superimposing one picture on another. It was wrong and it said so. That did not alter the status of the picture as a fake one whit.”
The Fargo Forum first charged that the picture was created by combining two pictures. And was fake for that reason. Then, when it became clear that the photograph was one picture – not two pictures blended together — the argument changed. The picture was not a picture of drought because cattle had always grazed on the land surrounding the Capitol building — in good years and in drought years. The picture had been taken during a good year. So it becomes a fake by virtue of its caption rather than the hands-on manipulation of the image. If people object to an inference that can be made (properly or improperly) from a photograph — that there is a drought — then they will find fault with the photograph itself.
The argument that photographs of typical conditions were recast as evidence of drought was also an issue with Rothstein’s skull photographs. An editorial in The New York Sun (Sept. 8) reported that “one of our readers has done a post-mortem on the skull.”
The wrinkled condition at the base of the horns of this bleached skull clearly indicates that the animal was very old. It probably died of old age in some winter blizzard. Its bleached condition shows that it has been out in the weather three years or more. As an exhibit of the effect of the drought in western North Dakota it is clearly a fake.
What makes these accusations of photo-fakery utterly perverse is the claim that they unfairly portrayed a drought. The photographs led the viewer to infer that the Dakotas were experiencing a drought. But the Dakotas wereexperiencing a drought. One of the worst droughts in American history. Was the real issue that the cow had died of old age rather than drought? Or that the cow skull had been moved less than 10 feet, as Rothstein later claimed? Or had been moved at all? Or that multiple photographs had been taken? Or was it merely an attempt to shift the nature of the debate from the agricultural problems facing the country to an argument about photography and propaganda ?
Photographic controversies notwithstanding, F.D.R. won by a landslide. He collected over 60 percent of the popular vote and carried every state but Maine and Vermont. One reporter remarked, “It’s no longer as Maine goes, so goes the nation; it’s as Maine goes, so goes Vermont.” Now over 70 years since the 1936 cow skull controversies, the debate continues about photography and propaganda. None of these issues have been laid to rest. Far from it. Claims of posing, false captioning, and faking regularly appear in much the same way as they appeared in the 1930s. Clearly, Photoshop is not the causeof these controversies. They predate Photoshop and other modern means of altering photographs by more than a half century. But they allow us to ask an important question. What can we of the Great Recession learn from the photographs of the Great Depression?
 In 1935, when the Resettlement Administration was established, there were almost 7 million farms in the U.S. These were small family farms. Less than 10 percent had electricity, Programs such as the Rural Electrification Administration and Resettlement Administration had a dramatic impact on the quality of rural life. Focused initially on emergency relief, the Resettlement Administration experimented with a range of programs to aid farmers in dire situations. The R.A. made small loans to carry farmers get through difficult times, built, migrant worker camps, constructed rural water projects, purchased conservation land and resettled displaced farmers on new land. There were those who opposed these government interventions and questioned their cost and efficacy. After the 1936 election, the agency, perhaps in response to critics, was renamed the Farm Security Administration. According to Beverly Brannan, Curator of Photography at the Library of Congress, in her book “F.S.A. The American Vision”: “Over the project’s eight years its administrators and photographers were not only documenting but contributing to a paradigm shift. Between 1935 and 1943 the American economy completed a transition in its economic base — from traditional agriculture to mass culture, mechanization, and corporate structure — and in its focus — from individual subsistence to mass mobilization for international warfare.”
 Notes from Rothstein’s itinerary suggest that the photographs were taken on May 24th. Even though the photograph was not taken at the height of the drought, the drought was clearly anticipated by the government. On April 29, Henry A. Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, reported the Federal Government was preparing itself for action in the event of another great drought year like 1934. On May 24 (the same day that Rothstein photographed the skull), The Times reported that “…general rains are needed over a large part of the spring wheat areas. Special attention is being given to the territory between the Red River on the eastern boundary of Minnesota and the Dakotas and the Missouri River. Reviewing the moisture situation, Nat C. Murray, statistician for Clement Curtis & Co. says in percentage of rainfall for the first three weeks of May has been approximately 36 percent in South Dakota…”
 Photography seems to bring out the amateur epistemologist in us all. Isn’t it odd and ironic that many of the recent debates concerning faked photographs have concerned inferences made from photographs which turn out to be true? The faked photograph of the launching of the Iranian missiles telegraphed the idea that Iran was launching missiles that could threaten Israel and the West. One of the missiles and several clouds of smoke had been “cloned” into the photograph with Photoshop. The photograph was a fake. But without the additional missile, the photograph would have made a similar point. It is that element of manipulation which has become the source of controversy, particularly when the viewer is “manipulated” into believing something they already believe. These issues are discussed in my earlier Times essay, “Photography as a Weapon.”
Editor’s note: The governor of North Dakota in 1936 was Walter Welford, not Wallace Welford. And it was the Burlington Iowa Hawkeye that we meant. Both errors have been corrected.