Photo Faux Pas
Monday, August 27, 2012
The Fargo Forum created national headlines on this date in 1936, when it announced the use of faked photographs by FDR’s Information Division to illustrate the terrible effects of the dustbowl in rural America. The Information Division was part of the Farm Security Administration, an agency created by Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. The agency, responsible for relocating struggling rural families to find work, was extremely unpopular. Even more unpopular than the agency itself, however, was the team of photographers hired to document the work of the Administration, known as the Information Division.
If moving people around the country was considered a waste of tax dollars, photographing it was definitely deemed so. Many of the photographs were meant to highlight just how badly rural Americans were faring in the Dustbowl. From the Midwest, they sent photographs of misery and devastation back to East Coast newspapers. One photograph that ran in the New York Times drew a lot of attention; in it, cattle are shown to be grazing outside of the North Dakota Capitol building in Bismarck, with a caption reading, “a herd driven from the drought…contentedly grazes on the Capitol grounds…” At the time, North Dakota was facing the worst drought on record. Temperatures were reaching 115 degrees across the state, and most crops had long since withered and died. However, writers at the Forum believed that the photograph had been faked, superimposing one photo over another to create a composite. They reasoned that the angle of the photo would place the cows not in a field of grass, but in a parking lot next to the building.
The headline was soon posted across the nation, and the entire Division came under attack. Additional photos were questioned, and weeks were spent investigating the claims. Finally, in September, it was revealed that the cattle photo was in fact genuine; a local farmer’s dairy cows routinely broke out of their fencing and wandered onto the Capitol grounds. The thing was, however, that they did this whether or not there was a drought going on. It was just another day at the Capitol for the cows.
Although the Information Division was under more scrutiny than ever, its photographers kept their jobs. It’s a fortunate thing, too, since some of America’s greatest photographers emerged from that very group, including Dorothea Lange, Arther Rothstein, and Walker Evans.
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme Job
Fargo Forum, Thursday, Aug. 27, 1936: p. 6.
The New York Times, Sunday, Aug. 9, 1936: p. S5.