Review | Killed Negatives at Whitechapel Gallery

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A woman slumps at a table, one eye guarded and watchful, the other replaced by a perfect circle of blackness. In the frame next door, a young girl gazes up from in front of a wooden fence, a black hole where her stomach should be. “Killed Negatives,” at Whitechapel Gallery, features photographs produced by the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression of the 1930s. These photographers, charged with documenting rural life, traversed the impoverished country before sending their photographs back to Washington. The catch is this: the photographs were subjected to a ruthless editing and culling process overseen by Roy Stryker, head of the FSA’s Information Division. Rejected photographs were hole-punched to mark their status. This method produced a strange series of photographs in which invasive, unnatural presences hover over the struggles of everyday people.

The show’s hands-off curation encourages the viewer to encounter the photographs and accompanying primary source texts as a puzzle. On the two far walls of the room, sixty-five images of identical size, in identical frames, cluster together. Their randomness triggers the urge to sort, to analyze, to assign motive to the men who punched out body parts and chunks of sky. Elsewhere in the room, tables hold letters and diaries under glass, where they shine with cold objectivity. Letters by FSA leaders scold photographers for wasting their time and film on imperfect or repetitive images of the kind on display. So begins the back-and-forth, the work of seeking these letter-writers’ desires and preferences in the marred photographs on display. A greater-than-coincidental number of black holes fall over faces, as if attacked in anger or boredom— unless, of course, it really is coincidental. The show’s premise leaves open both possibilities.

At first, then, the holes appear mere annoyances, and then, when viewed in a pattern, remnants of censorship, valuable for what they show about the censor. When examined at length, though, these black circles take on significance within the photograph, becoming inkblot tests in which the potential answers yield insight into long-ago lives. A hole-punch over a stomach might mean hungry emptiness. Or, perhaps, it suggests a womb, its darkness nourishing and protecting. In one photo, two black men stand together in winter clothes, a dark circle hovering in the space between their faces like a ghostly third: a protective, even divine presence, or maybe just the specter of poverty and racism embodied in the mark left by a white Washington administrator. Several well-chosen works of contemporary art, inspired by the killed negatives, highlight these blank spaces. Punctured, a work by William E. Jones, shows various killed negatives in turn on a modestly-sized screen, starting with darkness and then zooming out to reveal the almost-superfluous context surrounding it.

In 2018, these holes take on new symbolism. America is plagued by a violent, white-nationalist populist movement. This movement barrels forward by attacking urban cultural elites and the non-white working-class, establishing whiteness, maleness, and Christianness as the defining factors of the in-group while winkingly, cynically arguing that nationalist policies protect a forgotten rural working class. Killed Negatives subtly presents a different set of categories. In this show black laborers and white mothers, people in rural Louisiana and rural Pennsylvania alike, survive crammed together in the face of strange imposed presences. In this show, economic despair dissolves divides rather than inflames them. Within each scene a ghost looms, its meaning ambiguous, but its presence constant.

By Eleanor Stern