Killed Negatives

Unseen Images of 1930s America

  • Killed Negatives_8a00531a_Web

    Carl Mydans, Untitled photo (detail), possibly related to: Transients clearing land. Prince George’s County, Maryland, November 1935, digital print from scanned 35mm b&w negative Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [reproduction number, LC-DIG-fsa-8a00531]

Past Exhibition

This exhibition was on 16 May – 26 Aug 2018

Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America

16 May – 26 August 2018

Thousands of negatives by American photographers were systematically destroyed in the 1930s; these irreparable images were known as ‘killed negatives’.

Roy E. Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), launched a historic photographic initiative between 1935 and 1944. In order to expose American rural poverty, the FSA commissioned photographers, including Walker Evans (1903–1975) and Dorothea Lange (1895–1965), to record the struggles of rural life following the Great Depression. Omitted from the story of this landmark documentary project is the ruthless method of editing Stryker deployed for the final selection. The negative of each rejected image was punctured with a hole puncher; if a print was made the image would feature a black disc, floating surreally over faces and landscapes.

This display presents prints made from some of the rejected negatives as well as photographers’ personal and administrative records. Also included are contemporary artists’ responses to these haunting images. The photographs transform an act of censorship into abstract, conceptual and strangely beautiful pictures.

FSA photographers include Paul Carter, Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Theodor Jung, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Edwin Locke, Carl Mydans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, Marion Post Wolcott, alongside contemporary works by Etienne Chambaud, Bill McDowellWilliam E. Jones and Lisa Oppenheim.


The Whitechapel Gallery Archive Displays are generously supported by Catherine Petitgas

This exhibition has been generously supported by the Killed Negatives Exhibition Circle:
Beth & Michele Colocci
Andy Simpkin

Carter, Paul_Untitled photo, possibly related to Tobacco fields devastated by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts_Web

Curator's Tour: Killed Negatives

Thu 17 May 2018, 6.30pm
Free entry, booking required

Curator Nayia Yiakoumaki leads a tour of the exhibition.


Killed Negatives: Study Day

Sat 23 Jun 2018, 2pm – 6pm
£12.50/ £10.50 concs

Theorist John Roberts, historian of American Modernism Stephanie Schwartz, curators Drew Johnson and David Campany, Nayia Yiakoumaki and Alona Pardo respond to the archive exhibition.