Rotkin was a respected and prolific documentary photographer, widely published during the golden age of pictorial magazines, as well as in corporate publications. The works that brought Rotkin the greatest renown, however, were his pioneering aerial photography collections, Europe: An Aerial Close-Up (1958) and The U.S.A.: An Aerial Close-Up (1962, 1968). These books captured the popular imagination at the time, thrilling the public with novel perspectives of familiar places and the beauty of both the natural and the man-made environment. Rotkin can be seen as one of the heirs to the 19th- and early 20th-century tradition of bird’s-eye views of American towns drawn by itinerant artists in the pre-aviation era and often made into prints. Of course, the earlier artists’ work, though convincingly drawn and detailed, were typically imaginative projections based on their studies of the town from the ground. These became obsolete with the advent of the airplane and helicopter, which offered actual bird’s-eye views, along with cameras that could take pictures at split-second shutter speeds. Rotkin was one of the early pioneers of the new medium and technique. His work remains significant as an early example of aerial photography with an artistic purpose, and also as historical documents of places that in many cases have significantly changed in the ensuing decades.
Rotkin became interested in photography in his late teens. After graduating from high school he took a night job at the post office with the notion of pursuing photography by day. He soon met Roy Stryker (1893-1975), who ran the Farm Security Administration’s Historical Section, where from 1935 to 1943 he oversaw the photographic documentation of the activities of this government agency. The FSA was formed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. Rotkin was among the many photographers whose careers Stryker helped launch, including Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Berenice Abbott and Dorothea Lange. Through the FSA, Rotkin also befriended the photographer Jack Delano and the artist Ben Shahn. In this milieu, he became interested in social theories of photography. By 1943, he had sold photo features to New York City newspapers. World War II was in progress, and he joined the Army, where his background as an amateur pilot led to his assignment to an Air Force squadron. There he did aerial and gunner photography and received informal on-the-job training as a co-pilot. He also took portraits of Air Force personnel that were published in military publications.
When Stryker accepted a position at Standard Oil of New Jersey to document the company’s activities, he hired Rotkin to take aerial photographs of the oil fields. Rotkin’s connections with Stryker also led to his appointment as Chief Photographer for the Puerto Rican government’s Office of Information, where he set up what he later called “a mini-FSA” there and published his first book of documentary photography Puerto Rico: Caribbean Crossroads (1947). In 1949 he was a founding member of the agency Photography for Industry, among the first photographers to apply the documentary approach to corporate projects such as annual reports. In addition to his industrial work, he published photographs in the Time Inc. magazines such as Life and Time, as well as Holiday, Business Week, Collier’s, and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. As a member of the American Society of Magazine Photographers, he promoted the intellectual property rights of photographers and served as the organization’s president for two years in the 1950s. Later in his life, he taught photography and wrote a respected book of career advice, Professional Photographer’s Survival Guide (1982, rev. 1992).