Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America


An odd title, you may think, for an exhibition of photography, but not as odd as the reasons behind it. In the 1930s, the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), commissioned photographers to record and document life in rural America during the Great Depression years, but to a very strict set of rules, guidelines and subject matter. Any submitted photographs that did not adhere to the instructions, were ‘killed’ by the project manager, Roy Stryker, by hole-punching the negatives. This control of information and censorship smacks of Stalinist Russia, with its propaganda machine ensuring that only those images sanctioned by the Party get into the public domain. Some images were ‘strykered’ because they were patently not good, or interesting, enough, but it was still an unusual and Draconian method of editing. Two photographers stand out, namely Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee, and they both operated around the farmworkers in the mid-Western States affected by the Dust Bowl. Many of Lange’s photographs survive, as Stryker obviously thought highly of her, including the iconic image entitled Migrant Mother for the Resettlement Administration, which summed up the despair and poverty in this bleak patch of American history. Lee took thousands of pictures all over California, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma, where he documented the lives of the tenant farmers and sharecroppers living in the migrant camp on May Avenue, south of the North Canadian River. Another featured photographer was the Social Realist painter, muralist and calligrapher, Ben Shaun, who travelled around the affected areas with Lange, and one wonders what could possibly be offensive about his photograph of the young woman at the rehabilitation centre in Boone County, Arkansas. Other photographers in the exhibition are Walker Evans, Paul Carter, Jack Delano, Theodor Jung, Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon and Marion Post Wolcott.

Whatever the reasons behind the defacement of so many negatives, printed up as bromides for this exhibition, the results, each with a black disc hovering randomly in the frame as a black sun, a hole or a ball, are in the realms of surrealism. In some images, the disc is in the middle of someone’s face, while in another taken in a Cooperative store in Maryland, it sits on a shelf behind two children with a trolley. Wherever the disc appears in the frame, it does its job, as it becomes the focus of the picture and impossible to ignore, or use as a print. Franklin D Roosevelt was the President during this whole period between 1935 and 1944, and made serious efforts to drag America out of the Depression with his New Deal, comprising relief, recovery and reform, delivered over the wireless in his ‘fireside talks,’ including his famous remark, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’

He brought out laws mandating proper soil maintenance to make sure that another dust bowl was avoided. Stryker was part of Roosevelt’s ‘Brain Trust,’ and, at his time in charge of the FSA, he made sure the files of more than 170,000 of his photographers’ images and negatives ended up in The Library of Congress. He was interviewed by the Smithsonian Institution in later life and he admitted how little he really knew about photography and how much the photographers he had hired taught him, learning that images could express feeling as well as information. He realized, however, that magazine and newspaper photographs showing needy farmers, would boost the chances of New Deal relief legislation passing Congress. It is curious, then, that he went about selecting the right image in documenting the Great Depression at the expense of ones that were, in his view, not. 

Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America

Whitechapel Gallery

Until 26 August 2018

Free admission

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