Arthur Rothstein Watch Video
 
I purchased my first camera in 1968 the summer before my junior year at Tuskegee and spent that whole school year shooting and picking up pointers from P. H. Polk. Once final exams were over in June, I headed to Manhattan and the nearest newsstand where I copied the names of picture editors from the mastheads of Time, Newsweek, Life and Look - all the magazines I could find that relied heavily on photographs. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement and like thousands of other students nationwide I protested against racist Jim Crow laws. But my fellow students and I looked like vicious criminals in images run by the Alabama press - strikingly different from the photographs I was making at rallies.

I came to New York to make my kind of photographs. I knew the media wasn't going to stop printing negative images of people of color, but I hoped to contribute something positive to the visual diet. The only chance I had to do that was to learn to make pictures as compelling as those published by the best photographers.

With a portfolio of my prints in hand, I telephoned picture editors telling them I was not looking for a job; I wanted criticism. Tuskegee offered no photography courses, and I was desperate to learn more. Fate smiled on me the day I met with Look's picture editor Sam Young. In the middle of our appointment, an energetic, impeccably dressed man with a smooth bald head burst in - he was Arthur Rothstein, Look's director of photography.

Mr. Rothstein invited me to stop by his office and that afternoon I showed him the 20 images I considered my best work. Selecting one and placing four sheets of white paper, one on each side of the photograph, Mr. Rothstein maneuvered the papers until he had shrunk my image. It all happened in a second. "Here is the picture," he told me. "All the other elements are in the way; they compromise the real image. "He was right. It was obvious. It was my initiation to cropping - the first time I had heard the word.

In the next hour, Mr. Rothstein introduced me to a host of visual concepts - design, balance, composition, lighting, positioning. And then he asked me: "What is your message? What are you trying to say?" At first I was reluctant to answer, fearing I would sound too idealistic, but I knew it would be a waste of his time and mine not to be forthcoming.

"Our media shows no positive images of decent black people -"I blurted out, "men and women who work hard, go to church, have respectful and loving relationships. We need images of black people that reflect the fullness of our lives."

He looked at me for a moment, perhaps gauging the strength of my commitment. "That's a tall order," he said.

I nodded and pushed ahead, "Could I learn from you this summer? I need help training my eye." I don't know what it was that made him agree to work with me, but he did.

Day after day that summer, I returned to the Look offices. Mr. Rothstein, dressed in his trademark three-piece suits, always found time to be with me; he loved talking photography and would punch the air with his index finger to differentiate his many points. One of the very first things he told me to do was put my camera down. Use your thumb and forefinger on both hands to frame images, he directed; practice until you learn to compose your picture right in the camera. "There is no sense spending 1/125th of a second to make the picture in the camera," he loved to say, "and then an hour in the darkroom to make it work."

My head was reeling with all this new information so I asked Mr. Rothstein to give me a practice assignment to see how much I understood. He chose a day in the life of office messengers. Before letting me go, he discussed the importance of pre-visualization - thinking about picture possibilities - but still remaining open to discovery, being sensitive to what might unfold.

Messengers were easy to find and I tagged along with those willing to talk with me, trying to capture the urgency their jobs demanded. I shot two rolls of film given to me by Mr. Rothstein. What luxury to have real rolls - not the self-roll film I was able to afford then. The next morning Mr. Rothstein had contact sheets in less than an hour, and every frame needed improvement. He was kind with his criticism; he picked the strongest image and showed me how I could make it stronger before pointing out why my weakest ones failed.

Finding that I had not yet visited any art museums in New York, nor for that matter had any to visit in rural county in which I had grown up, Mr. Rothstein compiled a list of painters and packed me off to the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection. He instructed me to observe subject, composition, balance and light. "It doesn't matter if you like or dislike a painting," he told me. "It's important to have a reason for feeling the way you do."

At the Museum of Modern Art, he arranged for the photography curator to show me works by Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Wanting to see more, I sifted through boxes and came upon works by Gordon Parks, Marion Post Walcott and finally Arthur Rothstein. In that moment I discovered my summer teacher was not only my mentor but a famous photographer, who knew Tuskegee University very well. As a member of the Farm Security Administration, he had been assigned to document the students and faculty of my college in the early 1940s. Later still, I learned that Arthur Rothstein has helped an amazing number of photographers; they, like me, acknowledge an enormous debt to this generous teacher."

When September came and it was time for me to return to Tuskegee, Mr. Rothstein suggested our relationship continue by mail. I couldn't have been happier.

On my last day at Look, he handed me 60 rolls of color and black-and-white film. Shoot them and send them back, he instructed; and he would mail the contact sheets with his comments, which he did for my entire senior year. His influence on me and my career continued until his death when I, like so many others, lost a cherished friend.

DustBowl Dali
 
Locations of visitors to this page