Photo London: Killed Negatives at the Whitechapel Gallery

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In 1935 Roy E. Stryker, head of the Information division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), commissioned several photographers – including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee – to document America’s farm life and workers. The USA was in the throes of the Great Depression, and the scenes that the image-makers captured, from 1935-1944, created a damning and lasting vision of destitution.

Lange’s 1936 portrait of the so-called Migrant Mother became a symbol of the plight of the impoverished itinerant farmers, for example – and, for Stryker, summed up his entire project at the FSA. “She has all the suffering of mankind in her but all of the perseverance too,” he reportedly said. “A restraint and a strange courage. You can see anything you want to in her. She is immortal.”

Killed Negatives, After Walker Evans (Untitled), 2015 © Lisa Oppenheim. Courtesy The Approach, London

As Stryker’s words suggest, he had a very particular vision of what he wanted to achieve with these photographs. Images that did not fit in with that vision were ruthlessly “killed” – rendered unpublishable by having a hole punched through the negative. Thousands of photographs were defaced in this way, in an act of censorship that has since been described as vandalism.

But these negatives, and the floating black discs they throw up when they’re printed, have inspired contemporary artists, intrigued by their visual peculiarity and the ethical questions they raise. Now 70 of the killed negatives are going on show in the UK for the first time, in an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery that also includes archival material, and work by four artists inspired by these lesser-known acts of suppression – Etienne Chambaud, Bill McDowell, William E. Jones, and Lisa Oppenheim.

Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America is on show until 26 August at the Whitechapel Gallery Killed Negatives is a Photo London satellite event

Untitled photo, possibly related to: Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota. August 1937. Russell Lee
Untitled photo, possibly related to: Tobacco fields devastated by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts
March 1936. Paul Carter
Untitled photo, possibly related to: Mud bath, Prince George’s County, Maryland
August 1935. Carl Mydans
Untitled photo, possibly related to: Family of rehabilitation client, Boone County, Arkansas. October 1935. Ben Shahn
Untitled photo, possibly related to: Resettlement Administration representative at door of rehabilitation client’s house, Jackson County, Ohio. April 1936. Theodor Jung
Untitled photo, possibly related to: Surrealistic window display, Bergdorf Goodman, New York City
January 1938. Russell Lee
Untitled photo, possibly related to: Rehabilitation client worrying over his accounts, Jackson County, Ohio. April 1936. Theodor Jung
Untitled photo, possibly related to: Cooperative store at Greenbelt, Maryland
September 1938. Marion Wolcott
Untitled photo, possibly related to: Sharecropper’s wife and children, Arkansas. August 1935. Arthur Rothstein
Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.