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Killed Negatives

Over at the Whitechapel Gallery the exhibition Killed Negatives adds some critical elements to both the FSA and Lange’s story with unseen images printed for the first time having been subjected to physical redaction at the time. The American government through the Information Department of the Farm Security Administration instigated one of the world’s first mass observation projects. Set up in 1935 it continued until 1944 the aim to investigate societal dislocation in urban areas brought about by the great depression and drought ridden dust bowl that threw so many into a life of migrant poverty; the information gathered would enable the FSA to target financial support and training where it was required and would deliver maximum return for the money. The project commissioned a core of 11 photographers including such luminaries as Walker Evans, Paul Carter, Theodor Jung and of course Lange, and a few occasional additions from other government departments. Information Department head Roy E. Stryker was effectively the project commissioner and editor; with government guidance Stryker set shooting schedules and critiqued work as it came in from the team who captured between them some 175,000 images. It was interesting to see examples of Stryker’s correspondence with photographers where he sometimes provided harsh feedback and pointed advice for some to lift their game, use a tripod, your technique is poor and shoot less were comments often used! Amongst the guidance given to photographers along with a precise set of ‘wants; was to shoot no more than two versions of a scenario, three if the circumstances dictated so. Along with examples of FSA shooting schedules are some of Walker Evans diaries for a period of shooting in 1937; meticulous recording of scenarios helped with captioning images later, despite the concise nature of the FSA picture lists Walker Evans was clearly going to do what he felt was right! Another display shows Lange’s letter accompanying a set of 3 negatives including the Migrant Mother that show her original hand written captions giving real insight to the thoughts that drove the shots. Stryker’s most aggressive method of feedback was to hole punch, or kill, negatives that he felt were not good enough; those that were approved were printed through the FSA’s own darkroom facility and shown to the relevant authorities. It seems clear that some photographers processed their own film and sent a set of negatives that had been through the authors own edit selection process. Lange was one of these, Stryker did not ‘kill’ any of Lange’s negatives, probably due to her use of larger 5”/4” format rather than as the majority of the FSA team who used 35mil. However he did attack some of Walker Evans negs, one can only guess at the conversations that went on over this wanton destruction! Thinking about the darker side of Stryker’s actions, he was editing the selection before wider audiences could see them, government, and maybe press use and therefore information into the public domain, effectively censoring the view of this humanitarian disaster to fit government ideology. Maybe manipulating the media is not such a new phenomena after all? An excellent and thought provoking exhibition, free and on until September, that adds to the Barbican Lange retrospective.

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