Dakota Midday: Great Depression Photo Still Sparks Debate

Jul 20, 2015

Digital technology makes it easy for photojournalists to alter and change photographs. In a 2006 image distributed by Reuters, a photographer copied and darkened smoke to exaggerate bombing damage in Beirut. During the early days of the Iraq invasion, the Los Angeles Times published a photo that combined two photographs taken seconds apart to improve composition.

South Dakota Badlands, 1936
Credit Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress Archives

Faking and staging photos is nothing new. In 1936, Farm Security Administration photographer Arthur Rothstein moved and photographed a bleached steer skull at several locations in the Badlands to convey devastation during severe drought. Opponents of President Roosevelt’s New Deal criticized the image as government propaganda.

Rothstein’s photo of what critics called the “perambulating skull” is included in a new exhibit at the Bronx Documentary Center, “Altered Images: 150 Years of Posed and Manipulated Documentary Photography.” The exhibit is designed to prompt discussion about what is and is not allowable in photojournalism and documentary photography.

Retired South Dakota State University history professor John Miller joined Dakota Midday and discussed the famous Rothstein photo and the surrounding controversy.  He was joined by Jon Lauck, president of the Midwest History Association. Lauck also serves as counsel and senior advisor to U.S. Senator John Thune.