Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America

Whitechapel Gallery

16 May – 26 August 2018

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The first UK exhibition of censored Depression-era photographs that were 'killed' as negatives by being punctured with a hole puncher.

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

Between 1935 and 1944, the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) commissioned photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, to document American farmland and the farmers who worked during the Depression era, resulting in an extensive pictorial record of American life at the time.

This exhibition reveals an omitted element from the story of this landmark documentary project; the ruthless method of editing Roy E Stryker, who ran the project, deployed. All photographers received a set of detailed instructions on how to approach their subject, and when the photographs were returned, Stryker or his assistants selected those they felt true to their brief. The other images were punctured through with a hole puncher, ‘killing’ them. These ‘killed negatives’ would feature a black disc, floating surreally over faces and landscapes or obscuring subjects’ faces or bodies.

A photograph by Russell Lee is punched through at the centre, obscuring entirely the face of a farmer. In an image by Paul Carter, the black disc hovers surreally next to a shed tilted on its side. In Carl Mydans’ photograph, the punched hole becomes a black sun in the sky above a group of farmers, and in a photograph by Marion Post Wolcott it sits on a shelf in a shop. In these images, the act of censorship results in abstract, conceptual and strangely beautiful pictures.

Work by three contemporary artists who respond to these haunting images will also be on show. Etienne Chambaud responds to a Walker Evans ‘killed negative’ by attempting to fill the hole. Bill McDowell’s artist book Ground takes ‘killed negatives’ as its subject. Lisa Oppenheim is interested in the space obscured by the hole; her print after Walker Evans fills in the hole with detail and blacks out the rest of the image.

Venue information

Opening times

Tue – Sun, 11am – 6pm (Thu until 9pm) Closed 24 – 26 Dec

"Art Fund" is the operating name of the National Art Collections Fund, a charity registered in England and Wales (209174) and Scotland (SC038331)