Nearly a century since it began, the Great Depression is still largely associated with the iconic imagery that’s come to define the era. Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and Walker Evans’s portrait of the distinctly tight-lipped Allie Mae Burroughs are two foundational shots that establish the period’s visual record, and they accompany the approximately 175,000 photographs also commissioned by the U.S. Farm Security Administration during those years.
While vast in number, this collection is understood today as being limited in scope, particularly in relation to its failure to reflect racial diversity, because the head of the FSA from 1935 to 1941, Roy Stryker, effaced images he felt didn’t align with the agency’s goals. When he wanted to reject a photo and prevent its dissemination, he would mark it with a hole punch, an erasure that Tulsa-based artist Joel Daniel Phillips evokes in his striking series Killing the Negative Pt. 2.
The ongoing project reimagines intimate portraits and wider shots from that period as meticulous graphite and charcoal drawings and oil paintings in shades of red. Monochromatic and ranging from small portraits to life-sized renderings, Phillips’s works complicate the narratives expunged from the historical record by focusing on a wider and more diverse swath of the population. “When the black voids of Roy Stryker’s hole punch are placed front and center, the reality of just how much power that a single, White man had to shape the narrative re-frames and re-defines the entire discussion,” the artist said in an interview about the first part of the project.
Included in Killing the Negative Pt. 2, which runs from October 9 to 20 at Hashimoto Contemporary’s new Los Angeles gallery, are glimpses into both rural and urban life with large-scale paintings of an older farmer, young girl outfitted in a frilly dress, and a panoramic shot of a migrant family and their makeshift living quarters. One smaller work (shown below) recreates a selfie that FSA photographer John Vachon snapped “in a hotel room mirror while on assignment. He took several of these, and apparently, Roy Styker (the head of the FSA) particularly hated this one, since he punched it twice,” the artist writes.
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