Hole-punched FSA images

Figure 1. Untitled negative showing South River, old high school at traffic junction, New Jersey by Carl Mydans (Mydans, 1936).

I had been looking for the shooting scripts mentioned in Todd Hido’s book that were created by Roy Stryker for the FSA photographers.

The FSA series was about highlighting the socio-economic conditions of the US which makes an interesting contrast that they rejected some of the images in such an abrupt way. It really resonated with me over the idea that Roland Barthes discussed in ‘How to Live Together’ about those that we exclude from our communities but seek to ‘guard’ them, seemingly to create the comparison to ‘the other’ something that seems at odds with what the FSA photographs were aiming to achieve.

Figure 2. Untitled photo, possibly related to: Old stage coach tavern near Huntsville, Arkansas, now inhabited by rehabilitation client by Arthur Rothstein (Rothstein, 1935).

Roy Stryker would ‘Kill’ and image by punching a hole through the negative if it was deemed not good enough to be printed, though interestingly enough, some of these images have survived to be catalogued by the Library of Congress along with the much more famous images, such as ‘Migrant Mother’ (Lange, 1936). The photographers were unhappy with this, however he continued to punch holes in the images up until 1939 (Taylor, 2017). It is worth noting that Stryker was an economist and may not have seen the value of such images, he would also approach the task of the FSA by looking at process over the human story, this is noted in one of the shooting scripts that contains a note regarding Dorothea Lange’s concern that there was far too much emphasis on ‘economic setup’ and not enough consideration to the people that were impacted by it (Stryker, 1939). 

The hole in the image is striking and creates a clear subtext of its rejection by focusing the reader directly at this floating black disk, before considering the rest of the image (Marks, 2018). The hole creates an additional meaning to the image, some of which have been punched in areas that create an uneasy feel to the image itself. The image of the farmer (fig. 1) has been punched straight through the face, rendering the subject unrecognizable, although the caption states that it could be ‘Mr Tronson,’ we cannot be sure. When I read this image I am immediately drawn to the black circle in the center of it and know that the subject is living in potential poverty, his story was not deemed important enough to include and be seen.

Figure 3. Untitled photo, possibly related to: Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota by Lee Russell (Russell, 1937).

This seems to contradict what Susan Sontag writes of the FSA project as a whole, stating that the very purpose of the images was to show the value of the persons depicted in order to convince the middle-classes that “The poor were really poor.” This form of rejection removes the re-usability of the images for any kind of reappraisal later on, they have now become valueless in the context of the initial work (Sontag, 1977, p.62).

Bibliography

Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America (2018) [Exhibition]. Whitechapel Gallery, London. 16 May 2018-26 August 2018.

Marks, A., 2018. Hole Punched Voids Transform Rejected Photographs From the Great Depression. [Online] Available at: https://www.thisiscolossal.com/2018/07/hole-punched-voids-from-the-great-depression/ [Accessed 13 12 2019].

Mydans, C., 1936. Untitled negative showing South River, old high school at traffic junction, New Jersey. [Art] (Library of Congress).

Rothstein, A., 1935. Untitled photo, possibly related to: Old stage coach tavern near Huntsville, Arkansas, now inhabited by rehabilitation client. [Art] (Library of Congress).

Russell, L., 1937. Untitled photo, possibly related to: Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota. [Art] (Library of Congress).

Sontag, S. (1977). On photography. London: Penguin, p. 62.

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