"Assignment Key West 1938"
Arthur Rothstein Photographs
Online Exhibition

Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985) is considered one of America’s premier photojournalists of the twentieth century.  During a career that spanned five decades, he created an indelible visual record of life in the United States as a government photographer, and as a photojournalist during the golden era of news magazine photography.  In 1935, Rothstein was the first photographer employed by the Resettlement Administration.  This federal agency (which later became part of the Farm Security Administration, or ‘FSA’) was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of his New Deal to help farmers and displaced workers struggling through the Great Depression.

From 1935 through 1940, the FSA sent Rothstein on dozens of photography assignments to document communities crippled by the Depression.  His boss at the FSA thought that photographs would provide a window into the often-invisible plight of displaced agricultural and industrial workers, thereby demonstrating the need for government assistance and documenting successful federal programs.  When Rothstein’s photography assignment brought him to Key West in 1938, residents of the island had experienced the worst of the Depression, and had also been the beneficiaries of federal assistance.

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Key West hard.  A devastating 1935 hurricane had also destroyed the island’s railroad connection.  As a result, many once-lucrative industries closed and unemployment peaked at 75%.  In the depths of the Depression, the city of Key West formally declared itself bankrupt.  State and federal officials seriously considered vacating the island and forcing all residents to relocate.  Eventually, with federal help, the island was revitalized and promoted as a tourist destination, creating a new industry that would drive Key West’s economy toward recovery.

Arthur Rothstein arrived in Key West understanding that recovery would be sustained by the impending completion of the Overseas Highway.  He wrote to his boss at the time of his visit, “I hope the resulting boom and development doesn’t spoil the picturesque beauty of the island nor make the natives lose their friendliness.”  His remarkable photographs illustrate the frailty and resilience of communities along the island chain at this transitional moment in the history of Key West.

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