Killed Negatives @ the Whitechapel Gallery

The Farm Security Administration Photography Program

The Great Depression of the 1930s wreaked havoc on America’s farmers. Collapse in demand coincided with several years of drought-like conditions to turn a lot of the mid-West into what contemporaries described as the ‘dustbowl’.

President Roosevelt instituted a broad set of economic policies designed to stimulate the whole U.S. economy, referred to as the New Deal. To help and support farmers struggling in real poverty, often close to the starvation line, Roosevelt set up the Resettlement Administration (1935–1937) which was succeeded by the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Among numerous other strands of activity, the FSA commissioned a photography program which ran from 1935 to 1944. The aims were to send America’s best photographers to the poorest parts of the country to expose and document the terrible extent of American rural poverty. The shots were used in government publications to justify government spending and were widely distributed to newspapers and magazines to alert urban readers to the terrible conditions in the countryside.

Installation view of Killed Negatives at the Whitechapel Gallery

Installation view of Killed Negatives at the Whitechapel Gallery

In total the FSA photography programme generated some 175,000 photographs, amounting to a vast pictorial record of rural American life between 1935 and 1944.

The photography programme was headed for most of its existence by Roy E. Stryker, in his capacity as head of the Information Division of the FSA. He launched the photography program in 1935 and continued to oversee it after it underwent various administrative mutations, through until 1944.

Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression

Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression

The programme clinched the reputations of some of the great photojournalists including Walker Evans (1903–1975), Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) and Russell Lee (1903 – 1986), who produced heart-rending images of rural life which have also come to be seen as great art. Books were compiled from the photos – such as the influential Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) which had an elegiac text by writer James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans. Original prints of the more famous shots now command large sums at auction. (N.B. An exhibition of Dorothea Lange’s photos is just about to open at the Barbican.)

So far, so well known. But there is a little-told aspect of the whole programme which this exhibition is designed to bring to a wider audience.

Strict control and killed negatives

For what is not often mentioned is the iron control which Stryker exerted over the photographers and their work.

Stryker personally selected the photographers and gave them detailed briefs or ‘shooting scripts’ to work from. He kept in close touch with ‘his’ photographers, via letters and telegrams sending his responses to the photographers’ work and giving detailed suggestions on how they could improve, which locations they should be going to, what they should be snapping – always cajoling and instructing them on how to take the kind of images which the Administration needed to support and validate its work.

Most harshly of all, Stryker developed a ruthless method of editing work he didn’t like. He examined every roll of film by every photographer, as they were posted back to, and developed at, the Administration’s Washington headquarters.

And if he didn’t like it, if it wasn’t good enough quality, or was off subject, then Stryker personally mutilated the negative with a hole puncher. Any prints made of these rejected images would be definitively unusable because of the big black dot plonked right in the middle by Stryker’s hole puncher.

Untitled photo by Russell Lee, possibly related to Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota, August 1937

Untitled photo by Russell Lee, possibly related to Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota, August 1937

And so thousands of negatives by American photographers were systematically destroyed in the 1930s, these irreparable images becoming known as ‘killed negatives’.

The exhibition

This one-room free exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery display presents about 70 prints made from some of the thousands of negatives rejected and mutilated by Stryker, shedding a fascinating sidelight on this well-known period and its photographic output.

Some photos you can see straight away aren’t that powerful and not good enough to be included in a book or magazine article. But quite a few others have the potential to be really powerful.

Untitled photo by Arthur Rothstein, possibly related to Sharecropper's wife and children, Arkansas August 1935

Untitled photo by Arthur Rothstein, possibly related to Sharecropper’s wife and children, Arkansas August 1935

The 70 or so prints are hung in a great cluster across two walls of the gallery. Nearby are display cases showing original correspondence from Styker to his snappers, demonstrating just how much detail he went into when critiquing the work of his photographers. The cases include examples of the typed-out shooting scripts which the photographers were given, alongside a selection of the photographers’ personal and administrative records. Both the letters and the shooting scripts give a really candid insight into the tone of voice used among these professional men, and into the day-to-day practicalities of selecting destinations, finding likely subjects, hiring cars, arranging hotels and so on.

Censorship to surrealism

So far, so interesting and so much a contribution to a little-known aspect of a well-known part of photography history.

But bringing all these killed negatives together like this has the odd effect of creating a distinct aesthetic. Having a big black circle added to them somehow lends quite a few of these images a strange surreal beauty.

Untitled photo by Paul Carter, possibly related to Tobacco fields devastated by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts, March 1936

Untitled photo by Paul Carter, possibly related to Tobacco fields devastated by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts, March 1936

Viewed from our modern perspective, eighty years later, and taken together, as a collection, the effect of the ‘black spot’ stamped harshly onto faces, buildings and landscapes is to transform old images into something weird, extra and beguiling.

And so, quite unexpectedly, something which ought to be a dry historical footnote has been turned, by selective curating, into a kind of work of art in itself.

Untitled photo by Carl Mydans, possibly related to Transients clearing land. Prince George's County, Maryland, November 1935

Untitled photo by Carl Mydans, possibly related to Transients clearing land. Prince George’s County, Maryland, November 1935

Contemporary responses

So much so, that the collection has prompted responses to the killed negatives from contemporary artists, some of which are included here.

Etienne Chambaud (b. 1980) responds to a Walker Evans ‘killed negative’ by attempting to fill the hole. William E. Jones’ (b.1962) work Punctured is itself created from a sequence of ‘killed negatives’. Bill McDowell’s (b. 1956) art book Ground takes ‘killed negatives’ as its subject. Lisa Oppenheim (b. 1975) is interested in the space obscured by the hole; her print After Walker Evans fills in the hole in a photo of wooden shacks with colour detail, while blacking out the rest of the image.

Killed Negatives, After Walker Evans (Untitled) by Lisa Oppenheim (2015) © Lisa Oppenheim. Courtesy The Approach, London

Killed Negatives, After Walker Evans (Untitled) by Lisa Oppenheim (2015) © Lisa Oppenheim. Courtesy The Approach, London

Interesting and creative, aren’t they? But can’t really compete with the originals’ peculiar combination of black and white nostalgia for a time of terrible poverty with this strangely modernist feature of the random black dots lifting them into Marcel Duchamp territory. Fascinating and eerie.


Related links

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ISelf Collection: Bumped Bodies @ the Whitechapel Gallery

The ISelf collection is a UK-based collection of contemporary art which focuses on ‘issues of identity and the human condition’. In other words – bodies.

It was established in 2009 and includes paintings, sculptures and photographs mainly of the human body with a deliberate emphasis towards collecting female artists.

In other words – women’s bodies.

Installation view of ISelf Collection: Bumped Bodies at the at the Whitechapel Gallery. Photo by Steven White

Installation view of ISelf Collection: Bumped Bodies at the at the Whitechapel Gallery. Photo by Steven White

This exhibition is the final one in a series of four selections from the collection which the Whitechapel has held over the past twelve months, each one showcasing works by different artists in the collection. This one displays the work of 23 international artists.

To quote the blurb, the exhibition:

invites us to reflect on the notion of self by questioning the physical and material cohesion of bodies and sculptures… Works on show offer fragmented, deconstructed and visceral perspectives where bodies intersect with inanimate objects… In this final display drawn from the ISelf collection artists open up the possibility of thinking beyond selfhood.

The exhibition as a whole takes its name from one particular work, a vivid depiction of pregnancy being undergone by what looks like a transhuman cyborg from the future – Bumped Body by Paloma Varga Weisz’s (b. 1966, Germany).

Bumped Body (2007) by Paloma Varga Weisz. Courtesy of Paloma Varga Weisz © DACS 2018. Photo by Stefan Hostettler, Düsseldorf

Bumped Body (2007) by Paloma Varga Weisz. Courtesy of Paloma Varga Weisz © DACS 2018. Photo by Stefan Hostettler, Düsseldorf

According to the guide, the work:

reflects on the idea of pregnancy as an extreme form of selfhood, examining the tension between the expectant body as a subject and an object.

Pregnancy is one of the most extreme states of the human condition, according to art theorist Amelia Jones, as it reveals the ‘tension between self as subject and self as object’. The entire exhibition is a reflection on ‘shifting concepts of selfhood’.

The intersection between bodies and inanimate objects is probably most vividly dramatised in Quan (2009-10) by Berlinde De Bruyckere, where a wax cast of a bony-assed white person is burrowing into a dirty mattress, for all the world like a character from a Samuel Beckett monologue. We’ve all had mornings like this.

Quan (2009-10) by Berlinde De Bruyckere. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth © Berlinde De Bruyckere. Photo by Mirjam Devriendt

Quan (2009-10) by Berlinde De Bruyckere. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth © Berlinde De Bruyckere. Photo by Mirjam Devriendt

Nearby are some elegant if distorted thighs and calves cast in slabby bronze stepping out atop a pair of chunky platform shoes, As yet untitled (Croccioni bronze) by Rebecca Warren (UK b.1965). According to the catalogue, these

striding high-heeled legs fuse high Modernism with the lowly comic book in an expression of pure Eros.

As yet untitled (Croccioni bronze), 2009 by Rebecca Warren. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London © Rebecca Warren

As yet untitled (Croccioni bronze), 2009 by Rebecca Warren. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London © Rebecca Warren

Talking of the erotic, nearby is a striking silk print showing multiple iterations of a photo of a pneumatic naked woman slightly bending forward, much in the style of Andy Warhol. Deprived of a face, and so of much identity, and in its dumb repetition, surely pretty much a straightforward objectification of the female body – or so I would have thought.

Untitled (5 Nudes) circa 1980 by John Stezaker. Courtesy of John Stezaker and Friedrich Petzel, New York

Untitled (5 Nudes) circa 1980 by John Stezaker. Courtesy of John Stezaker and Friedrich Petzel, New York

Taking the mickey out of all such po-faced, soft-porn images of naked women is Sarah Lucas, sticking her tongue out at men, male artists, and office furniture.

Oral Gratification by Sarah Lucas (2000) Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London © Sarah Lucas

Oral Gratification by Sarah Lucas (2000) Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London © Sarah Lucas

Here she’s taken a rugby ball, covered it in glue and then carefully encrusted it with cigarettes moulded to its conical shape. She’s then sawn the result in half and stuck each half to the back-rest of a modern office chair, to create a crude caricature of a female torso. Lucas’s work is:

characterised by witty verbal and visual puns and a satirical look at sexual politics and the representation of women in the media.

Ever since I saw her stuff in the Sensation exhibition 21 years ago, I’ve loved it and wanted to see more of her bovver boy approach to sculpture and popular culture. It’s a shame she doesn’t seem to be about much any more.

An entirely different and far more earnest approach to sculpture is taken by Tony Cragg CBE (b.1949 Liverpool) represented here by a cast of a head which has been distorted or winnowed by extreme wind and pressure into an apparently melting, futuristic form.

Big Head Green (2009) by Tony Cragg © DACS 2017

Big Head Green (2009) by Tony Cragg © DACS 2017

So far I’ve picked out six of the biggest, most obvious works, but there were some 16 others, often more subtle and oblique than these examples – like the simple twig with human hair attached made by Bojan Šarcevic, or the set of little puppets made by Wael Shawky which represent the story of the Crusades from the Arab point of view, or the series of postcards of Tudor kings and queens who’ve had their faces defaced by Ruth Claxton.

The whole show is contained in only one room but there’s really a quite startling variety of shapes, sizes and types of art on display. Strange, unnerving, unsettling – I liked it a lot. And it is FREE.

Installation view of ISelf Collection: Bumped Bodies at the Whitechapel Gallery. Photo by Steven White

Installation view of ISelf Collection: Bumped Bodies at the Whitechapel Gallery. Photo by Steven White

The artists are:

  • Maria Bartuszovà
  • Huma Bhabha
  • Alexandra Bircken
  • Tian Doan na Champassak
  • Ruth Claxton
  • Tony Cragg
  • Enrico David
  • Berlinde De Bruyckere
  • Geoffrey Farmer
  • Georg Herold
  • Kati Horna
  • Sarah Lucas
  • Seb Patane
  • Pippilotti Rist
  • Bojan Šarčević
  • Wael Shawky
  • Daniel Silver
  • John Stezaker
  • Nicola Tyson
  • Cathy Wilkes

Related links

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The Barjeel Art Foundation: Imperfect Chronology – Debating Modernism II @ The Whitechapel Gallery

The Barjeel Art Foundation

In 2010 the Barjeel Art Foundation was opened, a museum and cultural institution in the United Arab Emirates created to manage, preserve and exhibit the personal art collection of Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi.

Last December the first of four exhibitions opened at the Whitechapel Art Gallery next to Aldgate tube, showcasing highlights from the BAF collection. As the wall panel reminds us, the 22 nations of the Arab League are home to some 350 million people (same population as the USA). The aim is that the exhibitions, as a whole, will tell the story of Arab art over the past hundred years. It will feature over 100 paintings by 60 artists.

This is the second instalment – on show until 17 April 2017 – and it explores the development of abstract and figurative art in the twenty years after the fateful Six-Day War in 1967.

The first instalment featured forty oil paintings in one medium sized room. This one has only 24 paintings and immediately feels more relaxed and accessible.

The paintings

But as with part one, it still feels like a very mixed bunch, with all kinds of styles and subject matter hanging side by side. Again, it was difficult to get an overall view.

Central to the room is this large painting by Syrian artist Marwan. I thought it was a novel and interesting way to depict the human figure and face. Not much emotion. The oddity of being human.

The Three Palestinian Boys by Marwan Kassab Bachi (1970) Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

The Three Palestinian Boys by Marwan Kassab Bachi (1970) Barjeel Art Foundation

Marwan had been represented in the first show by two of his characteristic, very big lampoon portraits, distortions, caricatures, Munif al-Razzaz (1965) and Der Gemahl (1966), now this. He is still alive and a quick google search shows that his later style changed out of all recognition since then.

Five silk screens from the 1980s by the influential artist Kamal Boullata (born Jerusalem) based on Islamic calligraphy – which is traditionally curled and flowing – abstracted and turned into geometric designs. I didn’t massively like them but they were the most distinctive works here. The Visitor Assistant in the room explained how Arabic letters had been reduced to primal elements, and also that they play with Islamic tenets, hence ‘There Is No ‘I’ But ‘I’’, an obvious play on the basic Muslim creed, There is no God but God.

La Ana Illa Ana (There Is No ‘I’ But ‘I’) by Kamal Boullata (1983) Silkscreen. Image Courtesy of Meem Gallery. Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

La Ana Illa Ana (There Is No ‘I’ But ‘I’) by Kamal Boullata (1983) Silkscreen. Image Courtesy of Meem Gallery. Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

Dia Al-Azzawi (b.1939), Iraq’s most influential artist, also featured in the first show with the powerful Mask of the Pretenders. He was a co-founder of the New Visions group in Baghdad but fled the regime in 1976 and settled in London. Here we have three works (only two of which I can find online):

  • Untitled 1976
  • Composition 1980 Maybe my favourite piece in the show. I liked the ragged outline of the work, made of two sections as if cut out by scissors, the way the tongue of colour hangs down at the bottom, and yet it is all finished with a strong sense of design and colour.

Azzawi is obviously a big figure with a major career and a large body of interesting work, but that doesn’t come across here, you have to visit his websites to see this.

Sulemein Mansour (Palestine 1947) – Olive field

Abdul Qader Al Rais (United Arab Emirates) Untitled (1970). Surely this is very bad, the kind of thing you see lined up against the railings of London parks to be flogged off to undiscriminating tourists.

Walid Shami (b. Syria 1949) – Maryam 1972

Hamed Nada (Egypt) – Fortune teller and cat Superficially scratchy and angley like George Grosz, but really something different.

Tayseer Barakat (b. Palestine 1959) – Untitled 1983

Fateh al-Moudarres (Syria 1922-96) – Al-Wahesh wal Muskeen, 1987. A red dog on the left is menacing some blue meanies in the centre.

Abdelkader Guermaz (Syria 1919-96) – Rêve 1975

Miloud Labeid (Morocco) Composition 1973

Shafic Abboud (Lebanon 1926-2004) – Relief 1977

Farid Belkahia (Morocco 1934-2014) – Aube

Huguette (b. Lebanon 1931) A very well known Arab woman artist, apparently. According to the wall label she is ‘drawn to nuanced representations of her own body’, and Erotic composition ‘focuses on the sensitivity of her own body.’ Compare and contrast with the women photographing their own naked bodies at Tate Modern’s Performing for the camera exhibition, from the same time (late 60s, early 70s).

  • City II (1968)
  • Erotic composition (1967) Googling this, you find out it’s only one of scores of similar drawings and paintings which refer very allusively to the body. Would have been nice to see a series of them to put them in the context of her work.

Jafar Islah (b. Kuwait 1946) – Colour with black and grey (1968)

Ibrahim el-Salahi (b. Sudan 1930) In the present, 1987. One of the leading figures in Arab and African modernism, el-Salahi mingles traditional and Western depictions of the human figure. Like so many of these artists, he left his homeland and settled in England in the 1990s. Again, googling this image, I discovered there are scores more done in the same style. Displayed on its own it looks isolated and inexplicable. Set in the context of lots of other images done in the same style would help you understand how it is a complete way of seeing.

Hassan Sharif (b. UAE 1951) – Man, 1980

Conclusion

It’s not a great exhibition, and only worth visiting for a few pieces (the Marwan, Boullata’s silks, the Dia al-Awazzi). Basically, for making a detour upstairs if you were visiting the Whitechapel anyway, for the Electronic Superhighway show. Mostly it looks like the undistinguished kind of provincial modernism my parents used to buy as posters or framed prints from Ikea in the 1970s. Lots of brown.

In conversation with the Visitor Assistant, we agreed we’d both seen more interesting, in fact some dazzling work, by some of the artists on display here. Most of the pleasure has come from googling these artists and discovering a world of achievement. It’s only by doing this that I’ve discovered how eminent (and great) some of them are.

Which leads to two thoughts:

  1. Four consecutive shows spread over the year, each dedicated to one of the obviously major artists here, would have had more impact. ‘An Arab Year’ would have been a real event. Tricky to choose which four, though…
  2. Maybe the Barjeel foundation, no matter how good its intentions, in fact only has a very average collection. Maybe what we’re seeing here is a misleadingly second-rate snapshot of Arab art, for the sake of comprehensiveness including works which are definitely not up to snuff, and even of the leading figures like Marwan or Dia Al-Azzawi only showing very average examples.

It’s whetted my appetite to see more of the better artists, just got to figure out where…

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