Believing Is Seeing


In the brutally hot summer of 1936, Arthur Rothstein, a young photographer working for a branch of the Farm Security Administration, made a series of images that soon took on a bizarre life of their own. They were photos of a sun-bleached cow skull resting in a bone-dry corner of South Dakota, one of several drought-decimated states during the Dust Bowl era. The wider reality they alluded to, of a natural catastrophe wreaking havoc on America’s farmers and tearing at the nation’s social fabric, was undeniably, frighteningly real. But within days of their publication in newspapers across the country, the photos’ “authenticity” was being mocked and challenged by skeptics who claimed that Rothstein had repeatedly posed the skull, like a stage prop, possibly to drum up support for Franklin Roosevelt’s big government spending programs. To learn how this political, journalistic and aesthetic brouhaha played out, and whether Rothstein himself or those claiming “fake” were in fact twisting the visual evidence, you’ll want to read Errol Morris’ brain-teasing, occasionally unsettling new book, “Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography).”

more from Reed Johnson at the LA Times here.