Monday, 17 February 2014

Killed: Rejected Images of the Farm Security Administration - William E Jones

This book brings out into the open the "killed" images from the Farm Security Administration archive. These images were classed as rejected by Roy E Stryker who was head of the FSA and who tightly controlled many of the photographers working for him. His photographic staff were provided with shooting scripts for the kinds of subjects that he wanted covered. Any images that were out of focus, deemed (by Stryker) to have bad composition or not fitting the political aims of the FSA were rejected.

Killed: Rejected Images of the Farm Security Administration

Stryker was almost exclusively responsible for reviewing contact prints and used a hole punch to deface any 35mm negatives that did not meet his criteria. Many FSA photographers strongly objected to his methods and over time some did manage to have a greater say over the use of their own work. No historical reasons have been given for the rejected images - although as I flipped through the book it becomes clear that aesthetic reasons (from a 1930s/40s viewpoint) play a part. Stryker also seemed to take a dim view of wasting film. If too many shots of the same sequence appeared on a strip of negative they would get the hole punch treatment. Stryker was also known to reject images as a means of asserting control over his photographers. The book's author, William E Jones, also claims that Stryker appeared to reject perfectly composed and well focused images too. These images (according to the author) can be fitted into several groupings:

  • Stryker did not like subjects to gaze directly at the camera.
  • groups of men or women that appear to be lounging around
  • scenes that showed signage from improper films or theatrical shows
  • any kind of furtive glances or overt bodily contact between the subjects

Whilst it can be said that Stryker ruled the FSA staff very firmly indeed it should also be noted that he managed to steer the FSA through a number of political controversies when under attack from members of the US congress.

In the book's accompanying essay, Jones states that his initial aim when researching the FSA archive was to look for evidence of:

eroticised images of men in the New Deal. [The] goal was to find bits of evidence, glances, gestures, attitudes - that revealed an erotic leaning. [Jones] refused to believe that there was not a trace of Homosexuality in the visible record of the Great Depression. An historical Queer presence must have been documented, if only unconsciously or accidentally, by the photographers of the FSA. Jones (2010).

Indeed a number of the images can be read in this way through their subjects body language. Although the evidence is circumstantial there are images that clearly show men who are intimate with each other. Gestures can be read - arms around necks or waists (and not just in a buddy pose) shared glances, even dancing together.

Jones also highlights the unposed portraits of young, good-looking men in (hotel) bedrooms and bathrooms, taken by the FSA photographer John Vachon. Jones asks, "Who were they to Vachon? Where they colleagues? Drinking buddies? Something else? And why was every single image rejected?"

Without any evidence how does the viewer read a photograph taken by a male photographer of a man sitting on his bed? The image can be read any number of ways. The obvious reading to me is that he is, or will be, the photographer's sexual partner. Others would seek to deny this. Obviously homosexual people must exist in FSA photographs. They will be hidden away in all images not just the rejected ones. So even if there is nothing going on between these two guys, for me, the image signifies the hidden homosexual world of 1930 and 40s America.

Does it matter that I have one interpretation and others have theirs? In a way, from the perspective of a minority, it does. Even though the hidden queer histories in most of the rejected FSA images cannot be proved (although one particular sequence has been well researched and documents the travels of a group of Gay men holidaying in California) the dominant heterosexual and paternalistic society that we live in will seek, consciously or unconsciously, to dominate all its minorities and 'others' through control of language and thinking. So, the potential queerness of the images are not read in a neutral and balanced way. We know that Gay people exist. Therefore some of the men in the archive images must be Gay. But, as in the past, if the majority view is dismissive of a theory then rightly or wrongly the view of those that hold the power will prevail. What I'm getting at is that the sexuality of people is generally assumed, by default, to be heterosexual. And because of that the majority of Homosexual people simply vanish from view. Images of them exist in the archives and records - but not in a dominant Heterosexual version of history that has been compiled from those same records.

It is also important for these hidden histories to be looked for and acknowledged in the historical record. An example that I read about recently comes to mind. In the 1920s photographer, Alice Austen, documented her life with her Lesbian lover, Gertrude Amelia Tate. Austen came from a fairly privileged background and her status accorded her an element of tolerance from the society that she moved in. She left a fairly extensive photographic archive (of which her Lesbian identity forms a part and is important for its portrayal of 1920s life outside the perceived norm). The archive is housed in her former home "Clear Comfort" and a board of trustees run the estate.

A documentary has since been made highlighting a controversy over Austen's sexuality. It seems that Gender Study researchers, looking for evidence of hidden Queer histories, found that they were restricted by the trustees from 'improper' use of the archive and it was closed off to further research in this area. The documentary is called "The Female Closet" by Barbara Hammer. I've had trouble obtaining a copy - but I would like to see it.

There is an online review of the documentary here:  The Female Closet: review.

I don't know if there was a big enough outcry to make the trustees change their minds but the case is a good example of minorities or 'others' (women, black, disabled, LGBT etc) being written out of a history that does not fit with the view of the dominant power base in a society. Because we are living in a society that is aligned to the model of a dominant heterosexual binary gender system, that society will mostly always seek to re-balance any interpretation of facts in its own favour. So, it would appear that there has been an attempt to silence the rare history, of an Out, Lesbian, photographer, and put her firmly back into a closet (she rejected in her own lifetime) where she can trouble no-one.


Jones, W, E. (2010) Killed: Rejected Images of the Farm Security Administration. New York, USA: PPP Editions (2010).

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