Walker Evans, Roy Stryker & the accidental avante garde

photographers

I’ve just started a course in the History of Photography at the Photographers’ Gallery in London and the first lecture threw up some fascinating insights into Walker Evans and his relationship with the FSA’s famed and feared managing editor Roy Stryker.

Stryker, along with John Szarkowski of New York’s MOMA, is probably one of the most influential and crucial figures in the history of modern photography. As Head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration in the 30’s Stryker was responsible for hiring and managing photographers who included: Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, Marion Post Wolcott, Russell Lee, Jack Delano, Gordon Parks, John Collier Jr, Carl Mydans, and Edwin and Louise Rosskam*. Between them they produced some of the most memorable photographic images of the 20th Century and went on to virtually define the practice of documentary photography.

The lecture at TPG was given by Roger Hargreaves** about the photograph as Material Object and traced an interesting path from Daguerretypes, that were made to be shared almost as icon, digital images that were also shared but on cameras themselves and now on social media. Later on in the lecture Roger came on to the work of Walker Evans and his relationship with his editor, Roy Stryker.  Stryker had a habit of rejecting or ‘killing’ negs by punching a hole through them with a hole punch and Walker Evans took a dim view of this, to say the least.

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When Roger showed us some of these pictures, it immediately made me think of some prints I’d seen at the Troika Gallery in Clerkenwell a few years ago. I couldn’t recall the photographer but I remembered vividly the photographs – large 16×20 or 20×24 black and white landscapes with crucial elements obscured or deleted by big black holes, some following or mimicking the outline of trees or other features and others just cutting crisply through image.

It turns out the photographer is called Aliki Braine and it also turns out that she was actually in the lecture, taking the course along with the rest of us. She gave a quick talk about her work and whilst she says she was aware of the  Stryker/Evans images, her work is more about the integrity of the image.

Here’s a video about her work

In the lecture Roger Hargreaves went on to point out that Evans began to incorporate the circular shape of the hole punch into his pictures – either as a subtle protest or an elegant visual joke. Roger listed a number of Evans’ pictures that he’d found, dating from 1936 onwards. I’ve had a scout through the Library of Congress Archive and turned up these examples, some of which Roger pointed us to.

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Then I started doing a little bit more research and it turns out that there’s a whole little sub-genre of photography that plays with the idea of Evans’ hole punched negatives.

First up there’s Lisa Oppenheim

KILLED NEGATIVES, AFTER WALKER EVANS

Lisa Oppenheim

This project uses as its source material Walker Evans’ “killed” negatives from the Farm Security Administration’s (FSA) photographic archive in the U.S. Library of Congress. The term “killed” refers to images in the archive that were not intended to be published or printed and therefore had holes punched through the negative. I printed up the original hole-punched negatives and attempted to think of the hole as a generative space, a space to look through a historical image into the present. I then photographed in color what I thought might be missing and printed only the ‘hole’ in an otherwise black sheet of photographic paper. In some instances, I photographed two possible interpretations of the missing hole. The photographs, either in pairs or triples, hang together. This project also refers to Sherrie Levine’s re-photographing of similar Evans photographs in her seminal 1981 project, After Walker Evans.

 

Then there’s Killed: Rejected Images of the Farm Security Administration by William E Jones. Here’s a summary of the project from Jones’ website

When the Library of Congress began making high resolution digital scans of FSA negatives available on its website, it included many rejected images, and among them, a small number of killed negatives mutilated by a hole punch. In “Killed,” these suppressed images downloaded from the Library of Congress website have been reframed with the holes as the central feature, and edited in a quick montage showing glimpses of an unofficial view of Depression-era America.

There’s also an interview about the project on the International Centre for Photography’s website.

William Jones also made a short video using the same negs called Punctured

 

I’m sure that other examples exist but it seems clear to me that that far from ‘killing’ the negs, Stryker has accidentally created new ways of engaging with Walker Evans and with photography itself.

 

** This Roger Hargreaves

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*from Wikipedia

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