In 1936 Arthur Rothstein drove over Teton Pass into Jackson Hole, assigned by the federal Farm Security Administration to photograph the rural landscape during the Great Depression. He paused near a barn at the Bar Y Ranch and got out his medium-format camera.
Rothstein composed a photograph titled “Farm near Jackson, Wyoming.” The picture is part of an historic collection of Depression-era images made by a team of now-famous documentary photographers.
It’s uncertain when exactly James Boyle built the barn at the Bar Y Ranch that is Rothstein’s centerpiece. Boyle’s grandson, Jim Brown, believes he built the barn in the 1920s. It remains a landmark along busy Wyoming Highway 22, a reminder of quieter days in Teton County and its ranching heritage.
The FSA hired Rothstein, along with Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, Gordon Parks, Carl Mydans and others, to display and even promote government relief efforts across the Dust Bowl and elsewhere.
“Bureaucrats hoped the FSA photos would show Americans broken by poverty only to be restored to their jobs and homes by New Deal relief checks,” Tom Anderson wrote on a history blog. “Instead they saw undaunted courage, fierce optimism, and a determined individualism even in the face of economic ruin. Many Americans were too proud to accept government help.”
Jim Brown and Diana Karns Brown operated the Bar Y cattle ranch for almost 40 years, Connie Owen wrote in her Circling the Square column in the Jackson Hole News&Guide in 2020. The couple “described it as the best time,” the column reads.
“Jim’s mother always told them there was no future in ranching in Jackson Hole, but they managed to keep the ranch together until their three kids were grown,” Owen wrote. “They sold the ranch in 1988.”
The Brown family kept the barn property, where Jim and Diana live today.
Rothstein, who lived from 1915-1985, was a New York City resident with top-notch technical photography skills and an eye for elegance, simplicity and humanity. His photographs often revealed his subjects’ unflinching dignity.
Rothstein’s photograph of Art Coble’s farm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma — Coble and two sons walking past an outbuilding during a dust storm — became his most famous image.
The photographer appears to have traveled out of Jackson Hole over Togwotee Pass. He photographed everywhere from Dubois to Natrona County, Gillette, Medicine Bow and Laramie, with some of the images made during a return trip in 1940.
More FSA photographs are available through The Library of Congress.