"[T]he images we know so well were only part of a much larger story"
May 23, 2018 12:59 PM   Subscribe

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 (large image) , a surreal scene of a family fighting to keep their feet in the wind that has already ripped their farm buildings to shreds. However, thousands more images were censored, judged not to meet the strict criteria the photographers had been given for the type of images sought – a tricky brief to show the scale of the problem the association was trying to tackle, but without obliterating all hope. (Maev Kennedy for the Guardian; web gallery)

Whitechapel Gallery, London - Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America (16 May – 26 August 2018)
-- Images of the American Depression heavy-handedly suppressed at the time by the FSA's Roy Stryker get their time in the sun at Whitechapel Gallery - alongside work by contemporary artists inspired by them (British Journal of Photography, with additional images)

How a Hole Punch Shaped Public Perception of the Great Depression -- The notorious photo editor who introduced “America to Americans.” (Aïda Amer for Atlas Obscura)
From his office at the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C., Roy Stryker saw, time and again, the reality of the Great Depression, and the poverty and desperation gripping America’s rural communities. As head of the Information Division and manager of the FSA’s photo-documentary project, his job was to hire and brief photographers, and then select images they captured for distribution and publication. His eye helped shape the way we view the Great Depression, even today.

Professionally, Stryker was known for two things: preserving thousands of photographs from being destroyed for political reasons, and for “killing” lots of photos himself. Negatives he liked were selected to be printed. Those he didn’t—ones that didn’t fit the narrative and perspective of the FSA at the time, perhaps—were met with the business end of hole punch, which left gaping black voids in place of hogs bellys, industrial landscapes, and the faces of farmworkers.
(A great, link-heavy article with more context on the Farm Security Association's work with photographers to capture a harsh reality, and Roy Stryker's efforts to shape the message through image selection)
posted by filthy light thief (8 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
This is really fascinating. Thanks for posting.

There seems to me to be something almost violent in punching the holes in the negatives. If you capture an image that doesn't meet your standards, you simply don't print it from the negative. Bingo, problem solved, there's no resulting photograph. Keeping the negative but rendering the images on it unprintable sends a completely different message. I can't really articulate why it makes me so uneasy. It's like the censor thought there was a danger to printing what, to me, look like really innocuous images. Not knowing where that danger lurks, or why someone felt so strongly about it, is unsettling.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:24 PM on May 23, 2018 [8 favorites]

Parallel to this, were the photos of Roman Vishniac in Europe. His career lasted decades but he is really only known for his early photographs picturing poor Jews in 1930s Poland for a Jewish relief agency. Though this propaganda only focused on a tiny subculture of those who experienced the Holocaust, it shaped how many people today think of Jews from that period. I just listened to this podcast about it yesterday:

posted by shalom at 1:30 PM on May 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

It's interesting to look through the collection of Carl Mydan's FSA photos that are available online through the Library of Congress - many that appear to have been approved do not tell a hopeful, progressive story at all. A few examples (titles assigned by LC catalogers):

Poor white hallway, Georgetown, D.C. Seldom do these people have even the desire to clear up rubbish, and the broom shown here seems to be out of place [1935]

Typical slum area. Note dome of Capitol, Washington, D.C. [1935]

Slum front yard playground, Washington, D.C. Such is the front yard available to these two youngsters to play in [1935]

Note also this unpunched image taken from the same series of children playing used in the article - there are quite a few like this. Seen in an aggregate, this looks more like Stryker making aesthetic judgments rather than political ones, and "heavy-handed suppression" strikes me as likely being overly dramatic.
posted by ryanshepard at 1:33 PM on May 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

We will be here again as things unwind.
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 4:26 PM on May 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

My mother was born and grew up in the Great Depression. She always feared this country could fall to fascism. I always look at any and all Deprssion era photography. A lot of her sensibility was marked by growing up then. She did not suffer as badly as others, but everyone who wasn’t filthy rich suffered something.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 5:27 PM on May 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Leave it to the Grauniad to get the name wrong. It was the Farm Security Administration, not Association.

Anyway, I swear I've seen these photos before. Maybe there was another instance of photos with holes punched through them.
posted by plastic_animals at 5:47 PM on May 23, 2018

Farm Security Propaganda Administration.

"The FSA started the tradition by contributing to the society through their pictures during the Great Depression, and their motto was simply as Beaumont Newhall insists, "not to inform us, but to move us....

And lots of people got moved:

" The removal of former tenants and their replacement by FSA clients in the lower Mississippi alluvial plain—the Delta—reveals core elements of New Deal modernizing policies. The key concepts that guided the FSA's tenant removals were: the definition of rural poverty as rooted in the problem of tenancy; the belief that economic success entailed particular cultural practices and social forms; and the commitment by those with political power to gain local support."
- Wikipedia
posted by Twang at 6:51 PM on May 23, 2018

The photos belonged to the FSA, which was part of the New Deal. Their use was politicized, not censored.
posted by Homer42 at 10:13 PM on May 23, 2018

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