Killed Negatives: exhibition and study day

15 June 2018

Exhibitions, Talks

About the exhibition:  Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America

Open: 16th May–26th August

Free Entry

Thousands of negatives by American photographers were systematically damaged in the 1930s; these irreparable images were known as ‘killed negatives’. This exhibition puts this little-known act of suppression on display for the first time in a UK institution; more than 70 ‘killed negatives’ have been printed especially for this show. Transformed into conceptual, beautiful pictures, these images are shown alongside original archival material and contemporary artworks.

Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America extends understanding of the historic photographic initiative undertaken by the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) between 1935 and 1944. It revisits how Roy E. Stryker, who ran the project, commissioned photographers including Walker Evans (1903–1975), Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) and Russell Lee (1903-1986), to document American farmland and the farmers who worked during the Depression era. The resulting works form an extensive pictorial record of American life between 1935 and 1944.

The exhibition reveals an omitted element from the story of this landmark documentary project; the ruthless method of editing Stryker deployed. All photographers received a set of detailed instructions on how to approach their subject. When the photographs were returned, Stryker or his assistants would select those they felt true to their brief. The other images were punctured through with a hole puncher, ‘killing’ them. These ‘killed negatives’ would feature a black disc, floating surreally over faces and landscapes or obscuring subjects’ faces or bodies. They were rendered permanently unsuitable for publication at the time.

The full selection of photographers included in the exhibition are Paul Carter, Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Theodor Jung, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Edwin Locke, Carl Mydans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon and Marion Post Wolcott. In addition, personal and administrative records reveal the way they were briefed in detail on their subjects in advance.

A photograph by Russell Lee is punched through at the centre, obscuring entirely the face of a farmer. In an image by Paul Carter, the black disc hovers surreally next to a shed tilted on its side. In Carl Mydans’ photograph, the punched hole becomes a black sun in the sky above a group of farmers, and in a photograph by Marion Post Wolcott it sits on a shelf in a shop. In these images, the act of censorship results in abstract, conceptual and strangely beautiful pictures.

Work by four contemporary artists who respond to these haunting images will also be on show. Etienne Chambaud (b. 1980) responds to a Walker Evans ‘killed negative’ by attempting to fill the hole. William E. Jones’ (b.1962) work Punctured features a sequence of ‘killed negatives’. Bill McDowell’s (b. 1956) artist book Ground takes ‘killed negatives’ as its subject. Lisa Oppenheim (b. 1975) is interested in the space obscured by the hole; her print after Walker Evans fills in the hole with detail and blacks out the rest of the image.

Visitor Information:

Opening times: Tuesday–Sunday, 11am–6pm; Thursdays, 11am–9pm

Whitechapel Gallery,
77–82 Whitechapel High Street,
E1 7QX

Copyright Rothstein Arthur Untitled photo possibly related to Sharecroppers wife and children Arkansas

About the Study Day: Killed Negatives: Study Day

Open: Saturday 23rd June 2018, 2pm–6pm

Tickets: £12.50/£10.50 concessions

Documentary photographs, as the final outcomes of photographers’ interpretations, are an embodiment of social relations between the photographer, the subjects, editors, mass media and historians.

This event takes a close look at archive exhibition Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America, which looks beneath the surface of the famous Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographic commissions which took place during the American Great Depression in the 1930s. 

Theorist John Roberts, historian of American Modernism Stephanie Schwartz, curators Drew Johnson and David Campany, alongside exhibition curators, Nayia Yiakoumaki from Whitechapel Gallery and Alona Pardo from the Barbican, respond to Killed Negatives and further discuss the ontology of documentary photography and its effectiveness today, as well as the relevance of the original censoring of the ‘killed negatives’ in today’s post truth era. Chaired by Mercedes Vicente, the talk will include a case study of the work of Dorothea Lange. 

In collaboration with the Barbican Centre, to coincide with the exhibition Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing.

Address: as above for the Whitechapel Gallery.

Galleria Raffaella Cortese in Milan are also holding an exhibition William E. Jones - Holes in the Historical Record which closes on the 28th of July. This exhibition focuses on the same FSA collection from which the Killed Negatives exhibition was drawn. Alongside photographs, there will also be two films featured: William E. Jones Rejected, 2017 (high definition video, black and white, silent, variable dimension, 7h 47’ 50’’ looped) and 3000 Killed (high definition video, black and white, silent, 100 minutes, 2017). Rejected consists of zooms in and out of 3048 holes, without titles. 3000 Killed consists of 2992 images, plus explanatory titles at the beginning and end, without zooms. 


Top image: Lee, Russell Untitled photo, possibly related to Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota.

Second image: Copyright Rothstein, Arthur Untitled photo, possibly related to Sharecropper's wife and children, Arkansas.