RothsteinÕs First Assignment accompanies a film of the same name debuting at the James River Film Festival on Friday, April 8, at 2:30 p.m. at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. An artistÕs talk and encore screening of RothsteinÕs First Assignment will take place on Sunday, April 17, at 3:00 p.m. in the Dominion Room of the Visual Arts Center.
Organized in association with the James River Film Festival, RothsteinÕs First Assignment: a Story about Documentary Truth, offers audiences the first opportunity to view the re-photographic project that inspired RobinsonÕs documentary film reexamining the first assignment of famed Depression-era documentary photographer, Arthur Rothstein.
Both the exhibition and the film confront the fate of a mountain society Rothstein documented when he worked as a photographer for Resettlement Administration. In October of 1935, Rothstein was assigned to the mountains of Virginia to photograph residents before they were moved from their homes by government officials to make way for Shenandoah National Park. Hired by Roy Stryker, his professor at Columbia University, Rothstein became the first photographer of the Department of AgricultureÕs Resettlement Administration, an agency that would become the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Later joined by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and others, Rothstein and his fellow FSA photographers produced the most important photographic document of the Great Depression.
Inspired by the re-photographic work of William Christenberry and Mark Klett, Robinson initially set out to complete a re-photographic project of RothsteinÕs Virginia photographs. Following ChristenberryÕs approach in his native Hale County Alabama, where he re-documented much of Walker EvansÕs FSA work appearing in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Robinson re-documents many of the sites featured on RothsteinÕs 1935 film depicting what was then Madison County. Similarly influenced by Mark KlettÕs work for the Re-photographic Survey Project (RSP), where Klett re-documents nineteenth century portrayals of the American West, Robinson also surveys change in an American landscape. Through the documentation of formerly inhabited land, his photographs record a contemporary viewpoint of the land seized from mountain residents for the creation of a National Park.
Unexpectedly, RobinsonÕs straightforward project led to written and photographic records that raise complex and difficult questions regarding the development of documentary photography and the earlier practice of eugenic photography. Tracing survivors of the resettlement project in pursuit of interviews, Robinson discovered that many of the children Rothstein photographed in the mountains of Madison were forcibly sterilized when they were relocated to The Colony, an infamous government institution in Lynchburg, Virginia. Contrary to published accounts that RothsteinÕs subjects were moved to government resettlement camps, Robinson unearthed documentation confirming many women and children were moved to The Colony, some just days after Rothstein photographed them.
The revelation that many of RothsteinÕs subjects were institutionalized and sterilized altered RobinsonÕs perception of RothsteinÕs assignment and forced him to reconsider a potential connection between the photography of the Resettlement Administration and the earlier practice of eugenic photography. Fueled by his haunting discovery of untold history, Robinson continued his re-photographic project for over two years. Using vintage maps from the Madison County Courthouse and the National Geographic Survey, he located the remains of former home sites captured by Rothstein in 1935. Working in fall and winter months, carrying equipment three miles away from any park entrance, Robinson made repeated hikes to Corbin Hollow and Nicholson Hollow to photograph and film the lasting foundations, chimneys, iron beds, and lingering remnants of eradicated mountain settlements. These photographs present a chilling reminder of the people who inhabited this region prior to1935.
RobinsonÕs photographs, methodically supported with facts gathered from courthouses, film archives, and recorded interviews, informed his experimental expose and documentary film, RothsteinÕs First Assignment. This film questions the notion of documentary truth and challenges the accepted narrative and intentions of RothsteinÕs early photographs. Debuting on the eve of the Shenandoah National ParkÕs 75th anniversary celebration, RothsteinÕs First Assignment forces the viewer to reflect on the untold stories of the displaced population who conceded their homes and their human rights in the wake of the creation of a national park.
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Richard Knox Robinson is an award winning photographer and filmmaker based near Charlottesville, Virginia. His first film, ÒThe BeekeepersÓ, premiered at Sundance in 2009 in the New Frontiers Shorts Program and went on to screen in Toronto and Telluride, winning Best Short Documentary at The Atlanta Film Festival. RobinsonÕs photography has been published and exhibited widely, appearing in numerous publications including Time, Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler and The Washington Post Magazine as well as in the photography annuals, Communication Arts and American Photography.
Robinson earned his my MFA in Photography and Film from Virginia Commonwealth University in December 2008. In addition to completing two residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, he has taught at Randolph College, the University of Virginia, and VCU. Currently he serves as an adjunct professor of photography at Washington and Lee University.