Monday, September 4, 2017

Roy Stryker, the FSA/OWI Photos, and the Hole Punch

Roy Stryker ran the great big photography project for the Resettlement Administration (RA), later renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The goal was to document the Problems of Heartland America, although it did rather more. It also celebrated the successes of government programs in Heartland America as well as, sometimes, Coastal America. The project was propaganda, it was aimed to document what was arguably truth, but certainly not the whole truth.

Stryker, for several years, executed his photo editing task with the aid of a hole punch, knocking holes in negatives that did not make the cut.

In recent months there has been a resurgence in the notion that this was a horrid and barbaric practice. The quote that gets passed around, because it appears in the 2009 article about this, is from Edwin Rosskam who was not an FSA photographer, although he was married to one. The quote dates from 1965, 25 years or so after the last hole was punched. Rosskam is against the hole punch, considers it "barbaric."

Let's set a little context.

In the 19th century the idea of a negative that is the underlying canonical representation of a photograph did not exist. Negatives did, to be sure, but many photographs were made as unique objects (tinytypes, calotypes, and so on), or as composites. Until the advent of panchromatic film (1913), you couldn't really shoot a nice looking land+sky picture without compositing, for one thing. Somewhere around the turn of the century the negative becomes truly dominant and that idea that behind every photo there is a negative, which represents the unaltered thing, begins to take shape. Somewhere in here the idea that negatives ought to be squirreled away safely begins to come to the fore.

Since then, we seem to have followed an unwavering trajectory toward increasingly fetishizing the negative. Ansel Adams rambles on more or less endlessly about "archival processing" so that our negatives and prints can last for 100s of years, and this seems to have spawned endless legions of bozos who strive to preserve their pictures. I recall seeing a guy say that he didn't use stop bath, only water, as he felt that the sudden change in pH would hurt the longevity of his negatives. No, he's not a chemist, and yes, his pictures are awful. His negatives are going straight into the trash when his heirs sort out his estate.

And now people buy triple-redundant RAID offsite backup bullshit for their increasing 100s of 1000s of RAW files which they will never look at and never print.

So here we are in the modern world with our idea that every negative must be preserved for eternity, looking back on that one. No surprise that we look back, aghast, at defacing negatives.

Added to the simple fetish material of the thing, there is surely the worry that Stryker, as a professional propagandist, was altering the record to fit his vision. So, let's look and see.

A recent article on petapixel suggests searching the FSA/OWI archive for "Negative has a hole punch" to find the digitized negatives with holes in them. Clicking through to one of them, we note that the archive also has a handy "look at the photos near this one by call number" link, so we can browse around photos from the same roll of film, the same batch of sheets.

Do not confuse this with actual research, this is just me poking at a dozen or so hole-punched pictures:

Holes were mostly punched in dupes, or alternate views of the same scene. Sometimes they seem to be punched in every instance of scenes which add nothing (yet another heap of bricks at the abandoned brick factory, this heap particularly dull). Occasionally these seem to be off-script (a picture of a mansion mixed in which pictures of poor farmers). The last can certainly be construed as altering the record to fit Stryker's narrative, and these pictures do exist.

So, to be clear, Stryker does seem to have altered the record. But perhaps not much.

Let us recall, or perhaps learn for the first time, that Stryker sent his photographers into the field with shooting scripts. He told them, clearly and up front, what story they were to get. For the most part, they went and got that story. Whatever altering of the record Stryker did with the punch was as nothing compared to work he did managing his team. The most obvious off-script negative I stumbled across was in fact clearly "off-script" in a very literal way. It appeared to me as a grab-shot, a personal photo taken on company time, as it were. It was also a jarring, contradictory, fact inserted into a quite different narrative.

So what do we have here?

In context, we have a fairly new idea, perhaps a couple of decades, that the negative is fundamental. It's not at all clear to me where we are in the spectrum of "negatives are disposable plates which we smash when the edition is sold out" and "negatives must be preserved at all costs in bomb-proof vaults", but surely somewhere in the middle, and certainly not in the modern era. We have a guy who's editing out what are, essentially, duplicates and very occasional photographs that he'd instructed against in the first place.

In terms of some sort of basic barbarity, I think the idea of the negative as sacrosanct was present at the time, but relatively weak. Opinions no doubt varied, but it's unlikely that most of the photographers cared all that much. Very little material was actually lost, and often the information lost in the hole can be reconstructed from surrounding frames. Not always, but often.

Also, I think that the idea of the sacrosanct negative is stupid. I am always somewhat relieved when a computer accident relieves me of a bunch of files. Of course, also a little sad and worried as I was raised on a diet of The Camera, The Negative, and The Print, but also relieved. Nobody is going to preserve my work, and then should not. Even if I become, mysteriously, famous and wealthy toward the end of my life, I'd prefer that, in death, I would make room for new voices rather than take up space for all eternity.

In terms of the propagandist altering of the story, the effect of the hole punch, while present, seems to have been extremely minimal, and surely among the weakest of the tools Stryker used to control the story. If you're going to complain about propaganda (and you should) this seems rather small potatos.

In short, the hole punch thing is real, but pretty minor. It's a bit like complaining about de Sade's terrible penmanship.

1 comment:

  1. Remembering something from perhaps forty years ago, I was leafing through a book of Bert Stern's photographs of Marylin Monroe. In the text it mentioned that their agreement for photo sessions gave her veto power over any pictures she didn't like, and that she exercised her veto with gleeful use of a hole punch on the negs/chromes. My reaction was a bit of shock—the sanctity of the negative was certainly a thing at the time. Then my second reaction was, "why not?" The purpose of the work was propaganda for a celebrity, not documentation of reality. The confluence of celebrity portraiture and journalism/documentary is pretty slight.