Censored images of 1930s America to go on show in London

Prints made from negatives disclose reality faced by farming communities during Great Depression

Beautiful but mutilated images of rural America by some of the most famous photographers of the 20 th century will shortly go on display for the first time at the Whitechapel gallery in London.

Each of the photographs, published for the first time, including works by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee, bears an eerie black place. The black circles- obliterating the entire face of a farmer in North Dakota, the right eye of a woman in Arkansas, or resembling an eclipsed sunlight hanging in the sky over labourers in Maryland- were created when the negatives were censored in the 1930 s by clipping them with a metal punch.

Many of the 175,000 photographs in the Farm Security Association archive became defining images of the Great Depression, including Evans’s gaunt sharecropper families, Lange’s portraits of farm women with nothing left except willpower, and Arthur Rothstein’s Fleeing a Dust storm, a surreal scene of a family opposing to keep their feet in the wind that has already rent their farm buildings to shreds.

An untitled Arthur Rothstein photograph. Photo: Library of Congress

However, thousands of others images were censored, judged not to satisfy the strict criteria the photographers had been given for the type of images attempted- a tricky brief to reveal the scale of the problem the association was trying to tackle, but without obliterating all hope.

The negatives were mutilated- occasionally several pits were punched to avoid the image being used even in cropped kind- but not completely destroyed. The censored and approved images all ended up archived in the Library of Congress, where they have recently been digitised.

Nayia Yiakoumaki, the curator of Killed Negatives, spent weeks poring over thumbnail images to prefer the 80 photo in the exhibition.” They were so wonderful ,” she told.” It was an almost impossible task, there were thousands I could have used.

” I was astounded when I learned of the existence of the repudiated negatives. These are photographers and images that I have studied and taught, but I had not realised that the images we know so well were only part of a much larger narrative .”

The images all date from a pioneering project by the FSA, which in the 1930 s sent photographers out into fields, homesteads, the towns and little town across America to record the farming communities being ground down by the Great Depression and the efforts being made by the FSA to help them.

Although the images often appear as spontaneous photojournalism, the photographers were actually working to a very tight brief, and “ve been given” more detail in advance about their topics. The briefing note recorded that Steve Doty, of Tangipahoa Parish, whose mule had died and who received a temporary loan for fertiliser for his strawberry harvest, had” built a one-room log hut for his family to live in. The fissures have been stuffed with newspapers. Two of his children are in school and the two youngest ones are at home .”

Carl Mydans’ photo of children playing. Photo: Library of Congress

A widow and eight infants were left destitute when a human succumbed of cerebral cancer after months get lifts as a charity occurrence for hospital treatment. The youngest infant was under three, and 15 -year-old Angelina had been left totally blind by typhoid. The 17 -year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was the only one able to work,” being able to sew and do canning run very well “.

In many cases the contrast between the immaculately turned out people and the shabby surroundings shows clearly that the photographer’s visit was expected and prepared for, but any images that seemed too staged were rejected, as were those indicating FSA officials.

All the photographers sent back their rolls of cinema to the project director, Roy Stryker, an economist but a photographer himself, who had the approved images printed in his laboratories. Yiakoumaki can see why some images, slightly out of focus, poorly composed or depicting the photographer reflected in a window, were repudiated- but she can only guess at others.

Did the striking black couple photographed by Walker Evans in New York look too smart, confident and urban? Was the group dancing in a circle, described by the photographer Carl Mydans as” healthy children in clean backyard”, just too healthy and too white? And the same photographer’s pair of black infants, sitting in a litter-strewn yard in front of a decay shack,” such is the front yard available to these two youngsters to play in”, too desperate and too black?

” These photographs stand as beautiful images in their own right ,” Yiakoumaki said,” but the intervention, the very act of extermination has built them into something more, objects which can be seen as runs of contemporary art .”

  • Killed Negatives, free, Whitechapel Gallery London, 16 May-2 6 August

Make sure to visit: CapGeneration.com


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