Spend some time browsing the 145,000 negatives at the Library of Congress from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and an odd pattern will emerge. Faces are blotted out, black suns hover over farmworkers, and unnatural voids in the earth seem to haunt these scenes from the Great Depression. The dark spots are the work of Roy Stryker‘s hole punch. Stryker led the FSA photography division during its documentation of US farms from 1934 to 1943, and any negative he deemed unusable was irreversibly scarred.
Photographer Bill McDowell scoured the online FSA archives for the most striking of these “killed negatives,” collecting them together for Ground: A Reprise of Photographs from the Farm Security Administration, which is out this month from Daylight Books. The FSA employed some of the most visionary photographers of the early 20th century, including Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, John Vachon, and Carl Mydans. And it also destroyed hundreds of their images. Ground includes John Baldessari-esque orbs hovering over the face of a North Dakota farmer (photographed by Lee in 1937), the gouged chest of a ploughing mule in North Carolina (captured by Mydans in 1936), and a blurry wave of Alabama wheat accompanied by an eerie pock (photographed in 1936 by Evans).
Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, writes in his introduction to the book that these “jet-black circular voids strongly focus a reader’s attention in different ways, in some instances calling attention to concrete issues such as the fact that wide swaths of farmland have been overpastured, exhausted from lack of crop rotation, eroded by floods and poor water drainage.” In others it’s “the particular stoop of working backs, calloused hands plunging into soil or picking berries, the hanging of just-washed clothes, and views of tired feet moving along and through dusty furrows.”
McDowell arranged the images thematically, with landscapes followed by workers toiling in fields, and in many instances he zooms in on a following page to focus on the black hole, which seems to get sharper as the subjects in the photograph distort. McDowell points out in his interview with curator DJ Hellerman that these images are owned “by the American people.” He explains that Ground is “the result of three separate acts of picture making: the original photographer’s deliberate compositional and contextual choices, Roy Stryker’s hole punch, and my recontextualization.”
Ground celebrates the marks on these images, and how, even as unintentional compositions, they change our perception of these photographs of the Great Depression. They invite us to consider the people whose faces are now missing, and what about the images made them unsuitable for the public image of farming curated by the FSA.
Ground: A Reprise of Photographs from the Farm Security Administration by Bill McDowell is out this month from Daylight Books.
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