I have to admit to making a double take when passing a poster for the exhibition titled “Killed Negatives” currently on at the Whitechapel Gallery, London (until Aug 26). The image featured in the poster, printed from a negative of the past, contains a circular black void over a face –– an uncannily similar intervention to those in my Children of Mars series.
The circle is an ancient universal symbol with multitudes of meanings. This is far from the first photographic image with circular interventions I’ve encountered. Another photographic series that comes to mind with circular absences, is contained within issue 14 of Erik Kessels' (brilliant) book project devoted to found photography titled “In almost every picture”. Issue 14, ‘Sunbathers’, is comprised of a collection of Polaroid’s taken of people on a beach. Where the focus of the image should be are large holes cut from the print, presumably cut away to be used within pin buttons. Focus of the image in these remnants is forced to the periphery of the photo, and our imaginations fill the missing circle. It’s remarkable that someone thought to save such a quirky collection of photographs.
Killed Negatives is the first time I’ve encountered the hole puncturing of negatives as a form of editing. It’s particularly interesting that it was performed on the famous American depression era ‘Farm Security’ photographic project dating from the mid 1930s through to the end of the second world war, which was responsible for one of the most important photographs of the era –– Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother”. It seems that Roy Stryker, head of the photo unit and the one responsible for the hole punches, added his intervention both consciously and with an ad hock gesture. In about half of the images, the hole is carefully placed to remove what Roland Barthes would call the ‘punctum’ from the image –– focal point of the image has been obliterated. With others, the hole appears to have been randomly placed. We can only speculate why this might be.
With a couple of negatives, Stryker has positioned the hole directly in the center of a subject’s face. The size and placement of these voids are similar to the the intervening white circles in my Children of Mars portraits. My work utilizes a hole punch for the creation of the facial circles too, but in a reversal of what Stryker has done. With my process, the hole punch is cutting a circle of masking material which is added to the negative, (casting a shadow that creates a white disc in the print). The hole punched Farm Security negatives are 35mm, I'm working with larger 120mm negatives. Serendipity.
The exhibition ties into an aspect of photographic history that interests me greatly –– that these reject negatives still exist today. Initially, they were likely kept for auditing reasons –– proof that this work had been done, hole punched to ensure they would not be mistakenly used. That no one had thought to discard these old rejects through eight decades is remarkable. It’s only a recent postmodern sensibility that views damaged images such as these as interesting. Perhaps they were buried deeply away in a forgotten archive, and only recently rediscovered? Unfortunately no explanation as to their survival was found in the exhibition. Also missing from the exhibition were the negatives themselves. Do the negatives exist as strips, or have they been cut to individual frames? How have they been stored? A few examples would have been nice to see.
When a photographer shoots a subject, they typically take more than one to ensure there is a usable image. (There are a couple of interesting letters included in the exhibition where Stryker warns photographers from taking too much of a certain subject, essentially wasting film and time.) When photography is used, most often it is a selection of one or two from the series. The images not selected may have been less relevant at the time, technically imperfect, not meeting editorial requirements, or simply not to the editor’s taste, and rejected. What happens to these rejected negatives in the years and decades that follow? I doubt anyone has a clear idea how many reject negatives of the past still exist. I expect that most have been discarded, but some, like this series of Killed Negatives still survive.
Over the past few years my interest has turned to negatives of the past. I have amassed an assemblage of reportage negatives from precisely the same era as the Farm Security project, mostly taken in London. Like the Killed Negatives, these (likely) out-takes have managed to survive. Many of these negatives also contain an intervention within the image as the result of not being selected, but these marks are not from the hand of an editor rather damage caused by time spent in poor storage conditions. The intervention in these are in the form of a mark like a stain ringing the periphery of the image, (likely caused by an acidic influx from poor storage boxes). For me, these marks do not detract but add to the image. They are a patina of time. It’s the photographic medium itself contributing to the image, reminding us of both the passage of time and the physicality and fragility of the photographic past.
I believe that photographic archaeology is not only interesting, but a necessary exercise. Outtake negatives are an opportunity to take a second look at a history assumed to be complete. Should an editor of the day have the final say on what we see –– forever? These negatives may have been “killed”, but they are far from dead.