Steer Skull, Badlands, South Dakota


In 1936, twenty-two-year-old Arthur Rothstein was working for the Resettlement Administration in South Dakota to document drought conditions there. His most famous (and controvesial) photo, above, was released to the media in August, 1936, coinciding with a trip by President Roosevelt to the Great Plains.

It instantly generated enormous controversy. Many 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 (such as the other photos below) revealed that Rothstein indeed moved the skull around. Although the critics accused that Rothstein had traveled the country with the steer’s skull in his suitcase, Rothstein insisted he had moved the skull no more than ten feet from where he had originally found it. Rothstein went on to create several memorable photographic documents including the classic Dust Bowl photograph of a father walking through a storm with his two young sons and received more than 50 photography awards, but the skull controversy hung over Rothstein for the remainder of his career, with the critics mockingly referred to the cow’s head as the “perambulating skull.”

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