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William E. Jones: Punctured

October 4, 2010 | by

There might never be a more bountiful kingdom of photography than that established under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration and ruled by the former economist Roy Stryker, some 171,000 negatives made to document Depression America between 1935 and 1942. Though he was no photographer (Gordon Parks joked that he couldn’t even load a camera), Stryker pulled no punches during his reign. “I never took a picture,” he once wrote, “and yet I felt a part of every picture taken. I sat in my office in Washington and yet I went into every home in America. I was both the Stabilizer and the Exciter.”

He might have added the Excisor. Scattered among the Library of Congress’s FSA archive are curious reminders of Stryker’s autocratic touch: For the first three years of the project, he registered his disapproval of an image—whether to make an example out of those he thought had wasted valuable film or out of some darker fit of spite—by taking a hole puncher to the negative, ensuring that it wouldn’t be subsequently printed. It didn’t seem to matter who took the picture. Walker Evans got holes punched in a handful of negatives; so did John Vachon, a lowly FSA clerk at the time who was learning the trade on weekends. If Stryker’s one-man photographic death panel was democratic in judgment, it was sporadic in execution. In some negatives the holes are perfunctorily, even apologetically clipped along the borders of the negative; in others, Stryker seemed almost wrathful, going straight for the jugular by obliterating offending faces, necks, or buttocks.

In his video “Punctured,” a reformatted version of his 2009 film “Killed,” the LA-based artist William E. Jones has performed a sort of perverse resurrection of Stryker’s perforated negatives, a Lazurus act that’s doubly miraculous because it uses the powers of video animation to raise up the quite-dead world of documentary photography. (The video is currently featured in an exhibition at Andrew Roth gallery in Manhattan.) From 100 perforated images he located in the Library of Congress archives, Jones has produced 4,500 digital files at different scales of enhancement and organized these into a hypnotically syncopated, nearly five-minute-long looped movie. The structural logic is provided by Stryker’s hole itself: each of the hundred images appears for a total of around three seconds, beginning with an enlarged, screen-filling close-up of the negative space of Stryker’s hole, a giant black spot that then smoothly and very rapidly appears to recede in size as the surrounding photograph comes into view. Then, bang, another Stryker reject appears, with the same fast zoom-out, from hole to whole.

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