AuthorFinnegan, Cara A.

Throughout the spring of 1936, twenty-one-year old Arthur Rothstein worked his way through the plains states as a photographer for the Resettlement Administration (RA), a federal agency created by Roosevelt's New Deal to alleviate the worst of rural poverty. In South Dakota's Badlands, Rothstein came across a cracked, bleached cow's skull and photographed it five times, experimenting with background, light and shadow in each of the exposures (Fig. 1-2). When he sent the negatives back to Washington to be printed his boss at the RA, Roy Stryker, wrote approvingly of the stark images: "Your last set of pictures which included Pennington County, South Dakota [...] were most excellent" (Roy Stryker Papers, 20 June 1936). Soon Rothstein's skull pictures, and others he had taken of drought-stricken areas in the plains states, were appearing in newspapers and magazines across the country. Edwin Locke, head of public relations for the RA, wrote to Rothstein in July that "the pictures which you made in the drought ar ea are front page news by this time. [...] Resettlement is all over the picture pages" (Roy Stryker Papers, 7 July 1936).

At the end of the summer the Fargo (N. D.) Forum, a staunchly Republican newspaper, published one of Rothstein's skull photographs under the headline, "It's a fake!" The article argued that photographers and journalists were using manipulative methods to make Americans think the drought in the Dakotas was worse than it was. The Forum warned journalists not to "fall foul of funny facts and figures," but instead to pay attention to the people who "live here." The article went on to claim that the skull photograph was a "gem among phony pictures," a "movable 'prop' which comes in handy for photographers who want to touch up their pictures with a bit of the grisly" ("It's a Fake" 1). The invective included a suggestion for journalists visiting the area: "Listen, Mr. Easterner! [...] May we suggest in all friendliness, that while you are in these parts, you take no wooden nickel pictures like this?" (1). The controversy that resulted from the publication of the Forum article, which came to be known as the "skull controversy," nearly put an end to the RA's photography project and called into question photographs made by other government photographers.

Recently scholars in argumentation studies have explored the question of how visual images function as arguments. Some of this work attempts to lay out the necessary elements for a viable theory of visual argument (Birdsell and Groarke; Blair; Groarke). Others choose instead to focus upon concrete cases and identify distinct types of visual arguments and the particular communicative functions they perform. Cameron Shelley identifies two types of visual argument in images depicting human evolution, "demonstrative" and "rhetorical." Gretchen S. Barbatsis notes the argumentative functions of "pictorial engagement" in negative campaign advertising. And Margaret R. LaWare explores how Chicano murals use culturally-accepted symbols to make visual arguments about ethnic pride and community identity.

Both the recent theoretical work on visual argument and the growing collection of case studies are firmly grounded in the belief that scholars of argument need to come to terms with the multiplicity of ways in which visual images participate in argumentation. They support this assertion by noting that visual images are ubiquitous in our everyday lives, that they constitute a particularly powerful form of public discourse, and that we have not done enough thinking about the "visual elements within everyday examples of argument" (Groarke 105-106). This inquiry is important not only because the study of visual argument may enrich our understanding of argument, but also because it has potential to enrich our understanding of fundamental questions in visual and media studies: How do images embody codes of power, domination, spectatorship, or surveillance? What are images' relationships to verbal language and text? How may we account for images' complicated modes of proliferation and circulation? (just to name a fe w). Although even the most well developed theory of visual argument cannot respond completely to all of these issues, it might productively contribute to the conversation.

David Birdsell and Leo Groarke argue that any convincing theory of visual argument must deal seriously with the question of the contexts in which visual arguments occur. They outline three types of context relevant to a theory of visual argument: immediate visual context (the relation of an image to other images with which it is associated); immediate verbal context (the relation of images to the verbal texts in which they are embedded); and "visual culture" (6-7). "Visual culture" may be defined as an amalgam of our collective "ways of seeing," a set of "cultural conventions of vision" that shift and change over time (7). These conventions, Birdsell and Groarke contend, provide the "broad, master narratives of design which are the background for more specific visual [...] texts which perpetuate or challenge those narratives" (7). In short, Birdsell and Groarke contend that if we are to understand the argumentative resources of a specific visual image, we should do so with conscious understanding of the conve ntions of vision that produced the image in the first place.

This essay takes up the call for a more sophisticated analysis of the contexts of visual arguments by engaging the question of how visual culture influences the perceived argumentative capacity of images. Through a detailed case study of the skull controversy. I argue that photographic images, particularly documentary images of the 1930s, carry with them a profoundly influential but often unrecognized argumentative resource: their perceived relationship to nature. Because we perceive photographs as fundamentally "realistic," we make assumptions about their argumentative potential. I call this process the "naturalistic enthymeme": we assume photographs to be "true" or "real" until we are given reason to doubt them. My analysis of the skull controversy reveals that the naturalistic enthymeme served as a particularly potent, but ultimately vulnerable form of visual argument about the drought and the Depression. Participants in the skull controversy, particularly those who attacked the skull pictures as "fakes," grounded their arguments in the naturalistic enthymeme, implicitly demonstrating its usefulness for public debate as well as its vulnerability to refutation. I suggest here that those who study visual argument in contexts where the realism of the image figures prominently (not only photography but documentary, film, and television news) would do well to pay attention to the norms and conventions of visual culture that make available argument according to the naturalistic enthymeme.

The essay is organized in the following manner. First, I establish the historical context for New Deal photography and provide a detailed narrative of the skull controversy itself. Then, I explain how the development of a visual culture of realism enabled the presumption of the naturalistic enthymeme on the part of the Forum's editors and the public. Finally, I return to the skull controversy in order to demonstrate how the naturalistic enthymeme operated in the public debate about Rothstein's photographs. In doing so, I locate several themes around which discussion of the skull pictures coalesced, including questions about photographic practice and debate over the proper editorial framing of the photographs.


By 1935, when Franklin Roosevelt signed an Executive Order creating the Resettlement Administration, the Depression was beginning its sixth year. The Depression hit American farmers especially hard, for in the 1920s farmers had already experienced a post-World War I slump in demand. Robert McElvaine notes, "In agriculture the depression [of the early twenties] continued on until it blended into a new one at the end of the decade" (21). The Resettlement Administration (RA) was charged with helping to solve a massive set of rural problems. According to Roosevelt's order, the RA would be responsible for purchasing worn-out land and applying soil conservation techniques to combat overuse and erosion, resettling farmers to better land, resettling farmers to suburban settlements (so-called "Greenbelt towns"), and making loans to help farmers who wished to remain on their land (Resettlement Administration 4).

Roosevelt named progressive Columbia University economist Rexford Guy Tugwell to head the new agency. Tugwell knew that many of the RA's projects would be controversial, so one of the first things he did was establish a unit called the "Historical Section." The Historical Section, part of the agency's public relations division, would use photography to produce a visual record of the RA's efforts and thus legitimate those efforts to Congress and to the public. Tugwell hired Roy Stryker, his former graduate student from Columbia, to run the section. Two tasks faced Stryker and his staff. First, the photographers were to make photographs of RA-sponsored projects that could be used to drum up positive feelings for the agency and its mission of managing rural poverty. But Stryker also had a bolder, more long-range vision for his section. He asked photographers to make not only publicity shots, or what came to be known as "project photographs," but also to photograph any aspects of the land and its people that the y deemed significant. He envisioned from the beginning that the primary task of the Historical Section should be to amass photographs that could be preserved as permanent documents of American life during the Depression. This dual mission gave photographers, who in the early years included Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Russell Lee...

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