Caught by the River

Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America

Diva Harris | 15th June 2018

Diva Harris of CBTR HQ recommends an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery

Last weekend, my boyfriend and I spent a sunny afternoon ambling around London’s East End, digging through piles of preloved clothes and feasting on Brick Lane beigels (from the yellow shop, since you ask).

A mere 10 minutes’ walk down the Lane in the direction of Aldgate East sits the Whitechapel Gallery, founded in 1901 ‘to bring great art to the people of east London’. It was here that we stumbled upon Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America, a small exhibition which, like a lot of the gallery’s exhibitions, was free to visit.

Between 1935 and 1944, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) commissioned photographers, including Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, to document the struggles of rural American life following the Great Depression. The initiative resulted in era-defining images, such as Lange’s  Migrant Mother – but behind the scenes, thousands of negatives didn’t make the final cut, and were systematically destroyed by the FSA using a hole punch. In Killed Negatives, some such culled images have been brought together, the prints each boasting at least one obscuring black disc hovering eerily over people, places, or in mid-air. The result is a set of photos which are at first hard to place, for they almost wander into the territory of contemporary art.

Whilst in some images the punch obscures parts of or whole faces, in others it creates an accidental sense of comedy and joy – as in the photograph of a crooked house which looks as if it is playing with a ball. Elsewhere, the missing disc appears as a looming eclipse, or multiplies and punctuates a children’s game as an ellipsis.

Despite the intention here – to censor, to destroy – the holes transform the already striking images into something unexpectedly beautiful. We circled the room a good few times, and slowly, before we could bring ourselves to leave.

The display is up from now until 26 August, and I enthusiastically recommend a trip. You can find more information here.