Killed Negatives at Whitechapel Gallery is a surreal art exhibition that rescues rejected photography from the archives

Steve Hogarty
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A farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota
Killed Negatives

Somewhere in a darkroom in Washington DC, between the years of 1935 and 1944, Roy Stryker of the Farm Security Administration sat at a desk and punched neat round holes into thousands upon thousands of negatives. As head of the agency’s Information Division, he had commissioned one of the largest ever documentary projects undertaken by the US government.

A part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the photography programme had the aim of reporting on the plight and poverty of a rural America in the grips of the Great Depression, to document how FSA grants were being used to improve the livelihoods of everyday Americans, and to restore some hope to farmers whose livelihoods had been ruined.

The project yielded some unforgettable results – Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother the most famous – and gave an enduring face and character to a bleak part of history. While the Great Depression was global, it’s Stryker’s depiction of poverty in rural America that most readily brings it to mind.

But few pictures met his exacting standards, and his rejections were final and destructive, rendered forever unusable by a well-placed hole punch. Stryker and his assistants spoiled thousands of images in this fashion, often with apparent malice. In one portrait of a farmer, the subject’s face has been targeted. In others the pitch black disc hovers ominously in the sky like some strange alien observer, or forms a plainly metaphorical void in some unfortunate housewife’s chest. Guessing why each photograph didn’t meet the grade can be perplexing.

Stryker was not just ruthless in his picture editing, but demanding in his brief. His continuous feedback to his small army of photojournalists in the field pulled no punches, and his tone was bureaucratic yet damning. In letters to Theodore Jung he praised the photographer’s eye for framing his subjects well, but questioned his ability to properly operate the Leica camera he’d been issued. Others were lambasted for spending too long in one place, or for shooting too many identical pictures. It wasn’t the cost of the film, Stryker reminded them, but the high cost of their ongoing rural reconnaissance mission. Five dollars per photographer, per day, he finger-wagged.

The condemned images are testament to Stryker’s merciless vision, a curious crossroads of historical documentary and surreal art project. Rather than censor and subtract, these strange holes elevated the images they sought to erase.

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