1930s 'Killed' photographs
The American Great Depression — excised.
by Alex Q. Arbuckle
The photos look just like the most famous FSA images of Depression-era America. Laborers with weathered faces stare into the distance, sharecropping families stand on splintered porches and rag-clad children play in the dust.
But each picture is haunted by a strange black void. It hangs in the sky like an inverted sun, it eclipses a child’s face, it hovers menacingly in the corner of a room.
The black hole is the handiwork of Roy Stryker, the director of the FSA’s documentary photography program. He was responsible for hiring photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein and Gordon Parks and dispatching them across the country to document the struggles of the rural poor.
Stryker was a highly educated economist and provided his photographers with extensive research and information to prepare them for each assignment. He was determined to get the best work possible out of his employees — which also made him a bit of a tyrannical editor.
When the photographers returned with their negatives, Stryker or his assistants would edit them ruthlessly. If a photo was not to his liking, he would not simply set it aside — he would puncture the negative with a hole puncher, “killing” it.
Roy was a little bit dictatorial in his editing and he ruined quite a number of my pictures, which he stopped doing later. He used to punch a hole through a negative. Some of them were incredibly valuable.
Stryker did not have any explicit criteria or methodology to determine which photos were killed. Perhaps an image was redundant or poorly made. Perhaps it failed to convey a socioeconomic truth. Perhaps Stryker wanted to push his shooters to work more thoughtfully. Or perhaps he was in a bad mood.
While some killed photos were merely punctured around the edges to mark them as rejects, others had their subjects’ faces or bodies annihilated, rendering them permanently unsuitable for publication.
No photographer was spared Stryker’s wrath. They objected constantly to this destructive practice, until in 1939 Stryker finally relented.
Thousands of killed FSA photos now reside in the archives of the Library of Congress, alongside the iconic images that managed to elude Stryker’s hole puncher.